In the article “The End of Self-Help” I explored some of problems in the self-help industry and its approach to fostering personal growth and self-improvement. None of this is to say that the self-help industry itself is the problem. Finding improved approaches and solutions to deficiencies is a critical direction to pursue because the fundamental objective of self-help is to contribute toward the improvement of our individual and collective quality of life. That is to say, the intention of self-help is vital to cultural evolution and the transformation of our assumptions and expectations about how to live a good life.
This article proposes some ideas about how to revitalize our approach to self-help and transform it into a creative force for improving the quality of life for individuals, communities, and societies. The essence of this transformation is undertaking a shift away from “self-help” and creating an industry of wellbeing. More than just a semantic variation or rebranding effort, the shift from self-help to wellbeing signifies a new frontier of cultural improvement. In fact, I believe the adoption of wellbeing as a universal right, not only for humans but for all life forms, is fundamental to the pursuit of meaning, purpose, and wisdom. In other words, wellbeing is an individual, collective, and universal pathway toward becoming more fully human.
Wellbeing has nothing to do with the pursuit of happiness or any other emotional state. All emotions are transient and trying to sustain a positive emotional state only leads to disappointment. Wellbeing inhabits the full force of life, that volatile cascade of thoughts, moods, behaviors, situations, and circumstances that ebb and flow into the experience of being alive. This includes positive experiences in life imbued with gratitude, love, and fulfillment as well as the hardships of life that immerse us in pain and suffering. In this sense, wellbeing is a core value, exalted belief, medium for decision-making, and foundation for a practical philosophy of living focused on the cultivation of a good life.
The Principles of Wellbeing
The most important principles of wellbeing, I believe, are:
- Philosophical Depth: Wellbeing is an important focal point for establishing a practical and useful personal philosophy of living. Unfortunately, society has, wrongly, pushed philosophy and wisdom to the margins. Education has been reduced to acquiring employment and does not include the vital work of establishing a dynamic philosophy for living. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why anxiety and depression are epidemic.
- Individual and Collective: Wellbeing is, by default, good for the individual and others at the same time. One of the challenges of self-help is inherent in its name because it can easily deteriorate into neurotic self-interest, self-concern, and self-centeredness. In other words, self-help can morph into self-harm and fuel narcissistic personality traits. Wellbeing focuses on self as a changing dynamic existing in a state of relationship, participation, and belonging with the confluence of everyday life.
- Inclusive: Wellbeing is inclusive of nature and the great flow of life that sustains the planet. It offers release from the incessant nausea of anthropocentrism, the patho-adolescent notion that human life is superior, dominant, and supernaturally endowed. Wellbeing promotes the ideal of seeing ourselves embedded in a greater flow of life that we can neither control nor fully comprehend – nor do we need to.
- Generative: Wellbeing is a generative art of living focused on the promotion of self-directed learning and preservation of authentic experience. In contrast, self-help is often instrumental, that is, it encourages people to become dependent upon the products and services developed by external expertise. Wellbeing is not an explicit form of help, it is a value system and way of being in the world that improves the experience of being alive.
- Dynamic: Wellbeing is an active and dynamic process of confronting the situations and circumstances of life, regardless of what they are, with a firm intention to so something good. To pursue wellbeing is to move deeper into the full force of life, not find ways to protect ourselves from it. It refuses to propose phases or stages of human development, such as elderhood, that encourages people to seek membership.
- Relationship: Wellbeing thrives on fostering positive and meaningful relationships grounded in authentic friendship, compassion, and care. In other words, the “self” experiences wellbeing in relationship to other people, places, and things that reveal what is inherently good in life. The “self” cannot be well if is isolated and exiled in an excessive state of self-interest.
- Belonging: What I am about to say here will be contentious. A practical and useful philosophy of wellbeing encourages people to make their own decisions about spirituality and how to lead a spiritual life. In doing so, it challenges the more superficial, extreme, and harmful religious ideologies that impose faith by fear. For wellbeing to arise, our sense of spiritual belonging must be responsible, personal, and grounded in directly felt experience. Religious perspective that lack this kind of integrity and depth promote exclusion rather than belonging.
- Universal: Wellbeing is a source of cultural integrity, unity, and harmony. It is a source of transformative energy that can contribute to the creation of higher consciousness and the alleviation of stress, anxiety, depression. Wellbeing transcends race, nationalism, and conflict and cultivates the spirit of advocacy and stewardship.
- Economic Evolution: Wellbeing as an economic force can contribute to more sustainable approaches to innovation, progress, success, wealth, and power. The modern economy is driven by the pursuit of material acquisition. The resulting inequality is toxic and degenerative. Wellbeing is a source of liberation from the bleak terrain of materialism. In this sense, wellbeing is not an industry, it is the underlying ground of genuine economic progress.
- Aging: Aging is the embodiment of time. We do not tell time; we experience time moving through our flesh and bone. Aging reminds us that the individual life is fragile, fleeting, and uncertain. It conjures primal fears associated with death and dying. More importantly, however, it is an intimate connection and source of participation inside the creative energy of life.
In the end, our experiences in life are all we can lay claim to. They are the only thing in life we can truly own. They provide the medium for authentic learning. They expose us to frontiers that can inspire and frighten. It is remarkable that no two people have ever shared the same experiences in life. In this respect, we are all unique. We cannot choose the context we are born into. We cannot control the situations and circumstances that confront us over the course of a lifetime. And we cannot avoid death. But we can embrace a deep abiding approach to wellbeing that elevates our attitudes, reactions, and intentions in life regardless of our circumstances.
For wellbeing to be meaningful it must help us to find ways to find meaning within suffering as much as it does cultivate positive experiences in life. It is no way pessimistic to say that life demands hardships, pain, and loss. The last thing we need is vacuous optimism or outlandish mystical claims that has sometimes plagued self-help. What we need to do is to Start Close In and take the first tenuous step toward a better way of living. The essence of wellbeing is felt, not merely something we read about; that is, wellbeing an exalted belief that permeates body, mind, spirit, culture, and nature.
- In North America, the standard is the hyphenated, “well-being.” In the U.K. and Australia, wellbeing is one word (compare Writing Explained to The Grammarist). Some consider wellbeing to be a nonstandard variant while others suggest choosing one and remaining consistent. I use “wellbeing” because it encourages a more unified and holistic perspective.
- In Wellbeing: The Art of Living, Mark Vernon focuses on the question of human wellbeing to develop a practical philosophy for the art of living a good life.
- The phrase “Start Close In” is a reference to David Whyte‘s poem, Start Close In. The poem provides insight into navigating difficult period of change, transitions, and thresholds in life. Moreover, it captures the essence of wellbeing. For interested readers, I recommend River Flow: New and Selected Poems 1984-2007, 2007.