Wellbeing is the foundation for a practical philosophy on living a good life. It is an exalted belief that imbues the experience of being alive with meaning, purpose, and direction. More than a psychological phenomenon, wellbeing seeks congruency between inner life and the outer world; it is the critical element in living a life that is good for self, others, and the world at the same time.
However, definitions of wellbeing are inconsistent. For some, wellbeing is simply the pursuit of happiness, an endeavor destined to fail and become a source of disappointment. Wellbeing has nothing to do with transient emotional states or qualities we attempt to cling to. It may be used in reference to a generic state of physical or mental health. Others use wellbeing to describe a desired lifestyle and align it with material success. The problem is that none of these definitions are useful in a philosophical sense. For wellbeing to become a pathway toward greater philosophical insight into how to live a good life it must have breadth and depth of meaning.
In a previous article, I defined wellbeing is the ideal way to inhabit the full force of life; that is, it is a source of wisdom that provides crucial assistance in navigating the volatile cascade of thoughts, moods, behaviors, situations, and circumstances that culminate in an individual life course. Wellbeing is a way of living and being in congruence with the power of good, not merely an intellectual pursuit. It must be inclusive of positive experiences imbued with gratitude, love, and fulfillment as well as negative experiences that confine us in hardship, pain, and suffering. In this sense, wellbeing is a core value, exalted belief, medium for decision-making, source of wisdom, and foundation for a practical philosophy of living dedicated to the cultivation of the greater good.
The purpose of this article is to add depth to the meaning of wellbeing. I propose that wellbeing has at least five critical elements: body, mind, spirit, culture, and nature. More than a psychological concept used to help us feel better about ourselves, wellbeing is a way of turning into the full force of life with the firm intention of crafting a life that is good for self and others at the same time. It a mode of belief that embraces uncertainty and recognizes that we have far less control over our course in life than we realize. As a core belief, the five elements coalesce into a unified system of participation that inspires and guides our decisions and choices about how to live. In a deep sense, wellbeing is a lifelong and lifewide philosophical ground for crafting a life worth living.
The Body: Physical Wellbeing
Embodiment is the epicenter of being. Everything we experience in life happens through the medium of an aging body. There is a mysterious intelligence moving through the body that defies human understanding and control. The body knows how to breath, to nourish itself, to heal wounds, to react to threatening situations, to reach maturity, to gradually deteriorate over time, and inevitably, to die. It is this innate intelligence that reminds us of our inexorable humility inside the animating forces of life.
We tend to focus on the body through the lenses of physical health, cosmetics, exercise, weight loss, and diet. There is a strange obsession in modern lifestyles to cling to the façade of a youthful appearance; that is, we are not comfortable with authentic appearance. Beyond the obvious need to cultivate good health, our approaches to physical wellbeing tend toward the superficial and reveal that we tend to prefer the comfort of illusion and denial.
In a philosophical sense, the body is a source of inherent connection and belonging to the great flow of life. Time moves through our flesh and bone. In this sense, we do not “tell” the time. The individual life is a creative embodiment of time emerging through the creative agency of nature. Aging is the word we use to describe the character and trajectory of our brief journey across an uncertain and fleeting amount of time. Our aging body is the essence of our connection to the wonder and mysteries of an animate earth.
The Mind: Mental Wellbeing
Beliefs are transformative. What we believe is what we become. The power of belief permeates body and mind. Meta-cognition, the awareness of our own thought patterns, is fundamental to self-discovery. Making wise decisions about what to do, and what not to, is fundamental to the cultivation of wellbeing.
We live in an age in which anxiety, depression, and ill-being brutalize our quality of our life. Instead of understanding these scourges to be symbolic of profound cultural deficiency and misdirection, we reduce them to symptoms of mental illness. Our tendency to isolate and psychologize the mind is misguided. The mind is a phantasmagoria of thoughts, ideas, imaginings, memories, dreams, intuitions, wounds, and hauntings. It is a distributed and elusive phenomenon that exists in a perpetual state of interaction with its surround.
Our most cherished and exalted beliefs, light and dark, influence the physical health of the body as well as our relationship with the world around us. Beliefs give rise to identity, purpose, and meaning. They help us to live in mindful or mindless ways. They are the root cause of good and bad decisions. Moreover, they determine how we interpret our experiences, which is the first critical step in cultivating wellbeing. The extent to which we can live a good life is intimately connected to the quality of our beliefs.
Spirit: Sacred Wellbeing
Spirit means animating forces of life. It thrives within and all around us. Every human life is a spiritual pilgrimage on the frontiers of impermanence. Spiritual energy is innate, inherent, and abundant. It exposes us to the realm of transformation and transcendence; that is, we all have an innate desire to belong to something greater than just humanity.
For some people, spirituality involves theism and faith in a religion. For others, spirituality is non-theist and does not require religion. Both approaches seek a relationship with the transcendent, to make sense out of the universe, and to give our brief time here meaning, direction, and continuity with the greater flow of life. Spirituality and its power to transform experience is also the most effective way to work with hardship, adversity, and trauma.
Spiritual wellbeing is a subjective endeavour entangled within the unique array of situations and circumstances we find ourselves in. It is a deeply personal practice driven by creative faculties such as awareness, observation, contemplation, meditation, and artistry. It is in the spiritual domain that wellbeing is elevated to the status of trusted mentor helping us to navigate the confluence and volatility inherent in everyday life.
Culture: Collective Wellbeing
Culture is an experiment in how to live together. In a deep sense, the purpose of culture is to provide an environment that encourages personal growth beneficial to the individual and community at the same time. Vital cultures elevate individual and collective wellbeing to the status of a human right and vigorously pursue the living expression of that right through every mechanism in society, business, and government. Weak cultures ignore or deflect genuine wellbeing and embrace lesser pursuits such as materialism. We live in an age in which culture has lost its way.
It is not to say that the cumulative effect of human beings on the planet is troubling. Global wealth inequity has reached the status of a disease. The potential for environmental catastrophe looms and is a real and present danger. Politics has been infected by the toxicity of narcissism and nationalism. And corporations continue their destructive march driven by delusion of endless growth. It seems now that the meaning of culture has been reduced to a vague reference to fashion and lifestyle.
Culture, in a deep sense, is a medium or total surround of principles, values, and beliefs designed to help people live together and thrive while doing no harm. The fundamental purpose of culture is to challenge deficient assumptions and expectations while simultaneously expanding individual and collective wellbeing throughout society. In a deep sense, culture is a sacred expression of our relationship with the earth.
Nature: Universal Wellbeing
Nature is a fundamental source of wellbeing. Being in nature is nourishment for body, mind, and spirit. There is no life without the natural world to support it. It seems, however, that we do everything possible to distance ourselves from nature. This is a phenomenon that has become painfully apparent in an age of attention-sucking devices that now proliferate in the age of outrage. Productivity symbolizes collective somnambulance. Efficiency causes exhaustion. Success fuels inequality. Innovation constricts. And progress destroys.
We have forgotten that the natural world is our true house of belonging. We are all creatures of nature inhabiting a planet home to a remarkable diversity of life. And we aren’t just “connected” to nature; we are nature. What we do to the environment and other creatures we share this planet with we do to ourselves. Ours is the Anthropocene Age, a geologic period in which human beings have altered the dynamics of ecosphere, which we now gather under the heading “climate crisis.”
Embracing a selfless philosophy of universal wellbeing is urgent. We don’t need to “reconnect” with nature; we need to eliminate narcissistic beliefs that portray human beings as a superior life form who self-decree the inheritance of the earth. In the end, we own nothing, and our arrogance is meaningless. Everything we acquire must eventually be released. A lifetime of material accumulation defines an unexamined life. Philosophy, it seems, has become the only way we can save ourselves from ourselves.
It is obvious to say that we do to nature we do to ourselves. We live in the Anthropocene Age, in which human activity threatens the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems. If we feel connected to nature, then we must feel distressed by what is happening to the planet. For wellbeing to attain the status of wisdom, it must be individual, collective, and universal all at once.
These five domains of wellbeing are a focal point in my work. Although the surface has barely been scratched in this article, they are fundamental developmental perspectives that will broaden and expand over time. In other words, they provide a kind of infrastructure to explore and elaborate a philosophy of living a good life grounded in the pursuit of wellbeing.
The loss of philosophy as a personal and subjective source of meaning and direction in life is a critical problem. We have outcast the philosopher, poet, and artist to the fringes of society when now, more than ever, it is their work that can save us from ourselves. Creativity and imagination, not rationalism and technophilia, are the medium of our release. More than just an intellectual enterprise, we need a philosophy that can inspire fundamental change, elevate our beliefs, provide guidance to our decisions, and, most of all, be fully inhabited and lived.
In the end, a practical philosophy grounded in principles of wellbeing is a lived experience, not a theoretical or academic concept. For individuals, wellbeing is a dynamic philosophy that helps us to strive toward the basic purpose of living a life that is good for self and others at the same time. In a collective sense, the power of philosophy is transformative and a means to evolve our cultural institutions and endeavors. And in a universal sense, wellbeing defines our relationship with an animate earth, which is, in the end, the source of life.
- Philosophy is about turning directly into the full force of life in order to make the best possible decisions about what to do. In this sense, it is practical, useful, and dynamic. Creating a philosophy of life is a fundamental task in being human. Any form of philosophy void of practical application is something less than philosophy.
- The five domains of
wellbeing described here are nascent and the focus of further development in
- Discussions of spirituality can be confused with religion. I believe that spirituality is something distinct from religion; that is, we do not need to belong to a religion to be spiritual. I also believe that spirituality is fundamentally a personal and subjective experience. It cannot be corralled by imposed narratives.