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Wellbeing is a term that’s tossed around a lot these days, but it’s more than practicing mindfulness or sipping a green smoothie.
Real Wellbeing encompasses how we feel—physically and mentally—it’s about our state of being, from our finances and our sense of purpose to our health and the state of our relationships.
While much has been written about wellbeing, the scientific research behind “wellbeing” is slowly starting to gain traction as a legitimate measure of how well we’re doing in life.
A case in point is the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, which has been measuring the wellbeing of Australian adults for more than 20 years.
Developed in partnership with Deakin University, the Index measures core areas of wellbeing and how they impact our general sense of satisfaction and “happiness” with our lives.
Associate Professor Delyse Hutchinson, MClinPsych PhD from the School of Psychology at Deakin University, explains that “wellbeing is a term that reflects how satisfied a person feels about their life. In particular, it relates to how happy, healthy or content a person is in their life.”
But while you may feel moments of happiness throughout your life—and alternatively experience moments of anxiety or fear—your success at achieving a greater sense of wellbeing comes down to consistency and stability, or homeostasis.
Homeostasis: what is it and why is it important to wellbeing?
The research into wellbeing developed as part of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index indicates that it is important to differentiate between happiness and wellbeing.
“While wellbeing does encompass happiness, wellbeing itself relates more broadly to a general sense of satisfaction or contentment with one’s life that tends to be more stable over time,” says Delyse.
This stability is known as homeostasis. As Delyse explains: “In the scientific sense, our body temperature remains relatively stable, despite changes in conditions on a day-to-day basis. In regard to wellbeing, our bodies also have an internal system that maintains stability in our feelings of wellbeing”.
“A bit like body temperature, factors that are external or internal to an individual can decrease our capacity for homeostasis. Such factors may lower our wellbeing, which can have negative impacts on our mental and physical health—as such, our ability to maintain homeostasis can be compromised.”
Maintaining homeostasis in the core areas of our lives is important because it allows us to build resilience to factors that may cause changes in our wellbeing. “The homeostatic process acts like the mechanism to maintain wellbeing,” says Delyse.
By building and maintaining homeostasis, we’re able to achieve greater wellbeing, despite the ongoing challenges life throws at us.
Understanding the core domains of wellbeing
So if the goal is to achieve a state of equilibrium in our lives through homeostasis, in what areas should we aim to increase our wellbeing?
“While there are some core areas of wellbeing that we know are important, what makes one person feel content or happy can differ from another person. It’s why we often used the term ‘subjective wellbeing’ to capture the somewhat abstract or personal nature of the term wellbeing,” says Delyse.
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index measures seven core “domains” to assess people’s satisfaction with their wellbeing. These are relationships, standard of living, achieving in life (sense of purpose and meaning), health, community connectedness, personal safety and future security.
To achieve the “golden triangle” of happiness, you need to have healthy relationships, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and to have a secure standard of living.
Interestingly, over the past two decades, Delyse explains that the Wellbeing Index has seen people’s wellbeing remain remarkably consistent.
“In 20 years of research on wellbeing, we have observed that subjective wellbeing tends to remain relatively stable in the community,” she says.
“We have observed striking stability in wellbeing over this period, likely due to the stable economic and political environment in Australia, but also the relative stability in life satisfaction among Australians generally.”
Building resilience in our wellbeing
Resilience is a key factor in being able to grasp, navigate and bounce back from life’s challenges. But how do we maintain our homeostasis and therefore our wellbeing during challenging times? Delyse relates it back to our capacity to manage our internal and external resources.
“Building resilience to homeostasis challenges in life can be done by bolstering both our internal resources—for example, the ability to cope, self-esteem, optimism, gratitude— and our external resources, such as good-quality relationships, financial resources, appropriate help-seeking and so on.
The idea is basically to boost your capacity for resilience in the face of life challenges, when homeostasis starts to dip,” says Delyse.
Nurturing both our external and internal resources enables us to achieve homeostasis in our wellbeing, effectively protecting it from being eroded when things get tough.
So when life throws us challenges—the COVID-19 pandemic being the perfect example—we have enough “protected” wellbeing across the domains that, even if there is a dip, we have the resilience to bounce back.
The research-backed benefits of wellbeing
Delyse explains that, from a psychological perspective, a sense of wellbeing is fundamental to the overall health of an individual, but also have important flow-on effects to families or communities.
“Wellbeing is associated with health, job, family and economic benefits,” she says. “For example, higher levels of wellbeing are associated with better health outcomes, such as decreased disease risk, illness and injury; better immune functioning and recovery from illness, and increased longevity.”
Delyse goes on to explain that people with high levels of wellbeing have increased productivity at work and are more likely to contribute to their communities, which in turn contributes to their sense of wellbeing across several of the outlined core domains.
After more than 20 years of scientific research into how we perceive and report on our wellbeing, we’re finally seeing trends emerge in how Australians build, achieve and maintain wellbeing across the seven core domains.
While the notion of happiness and wellbeing may be subjective, homeostasis is an integral element in maintaining our wellbeing, even when life gets tough.
What is the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index?
Our friends at Australian Unity have been measuring the wellbeing of Australians with Deakin University since 2000. Known as the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, it’s one of the most enduring and credible studies of wellbeing in Australia.
The Index tracks how satisfied people across Australia are with their lives as a whole, using seven key areas of wellbeing, such as standard of living and future security. It shows that real wellbeing is about much more than just health.
The insights from the Index say a lot about how we’re doing as a nation—and more importantly, what each of us can do to improve our quality of life. Using the Wellbeing Index as a guide, everything we do is for building real wellbeing for all Australians. Head out to learn more about the Wellbeing Index.
This article was first published by Australian Unity here.
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