4 Questions That Can Change How You Understand Well-Being
New research shows how simple questions can guide you to better well-being.
Well-being is a key area in the field of positive psychology, but there is debate as to how it's best defined.
New research shows that four questions can provide a measure of one's current psychological state.
Recognizing these central contributors to feelings of well-being can help you activate your own network of inner positivity.
When you think about what psychology has to offer about understanding yourself and others, what’s the first issue that comes to mind? Do you think that psychology’s role is to help identify and treat disorders such as depression, anxiety, or perhaps narcissism? Or perhaps you prefer to view psychology as providing a pathway to mental health by showing how to cultivate your inner strengths and resources. Could psychology, following from this approach, help you achieve greater well-being?
The positive psychology movement emerged from this desire to get away from the “negative” emphasis in the field that looked primarily at diagnosable conditions or the more general malaise associated with “neuroticism.”
If psychology was going to change its focus to reveal more about the uplifting aspects of behavior, though, it was going to need some new measures. Although scales to assess life satisfaction were around prior to the positive psychology movement, the impetus to develop new ones gained traction as researchers realized that their existing tools weren’t completely adequate. You could flip a neuroticism scale around and use it to track the opposite of neuroticism, but wouldn’t it be better to define a uniquely positive quality of adjustment?
Psychology Sets Its Sites on Well-Being
As it turns out, well-being isn’t all that easy to quantify. For a variety of reasons, people can find it difficult to put their feelings of positive adjustment into numerical terms especially when the measure they are completing doesn't quite hit the mark.
According to University of Girona’s Ana Blasco-Belled and University of Lleida’s Carles Alsinet, (2022) one of the chief measures of well-being used in psychology, the Ryff Psychological Well-Being Scale (PWBS) itself suffers from a number of basic definitional problems. The PWBS needs fixing, and the Spanish research team came up with a novel way to embark on this process. By understanding their modifications to the PWBS, you can gain greater insight into the path you could pursue to greater feelings of positive adaptation to your life.
The PWBS was developed by University of Wisconsin psychologist Carol Ryff to capture these six underlying factors: Personal Growth, Positive Relationships, Environmental Mastery, Life Purpose, Self-Acceptance, and Autonomy. Most of these terms refer to what they sound like. Unfortunately, although the PWBS continues to be used to produce scores on its own six factors, researchers continue to struggle to show that those factors are valid. In the words of the Spanish authors, “Researchers generally agree that the PWBS appears as a good indicator of overall psychological well-being, but it fails to identify the six intended specific dimensions.”
The elusive nature of the PWBS’s six dimensions is due, the Spanish researchers maintain, to the methods used to provide support. Ordinarily, researchers use a statistical procedure called "factor analysis" that tries to separate out each unique dimension. However, Blasco-Belled and Alsinet decided to take what’s called a “network” approach. Their idea is that “psychological variables are mutually connected and reinforce one another, which forms a causally connected system.”
Think about what contributes to your well-being right at this moment. If you’re feeling good, is this because you’re ready to conquer whatever comes your way (environmental mastery), or because you feel that your life has purpose? Would you be able to take your level of well-being and partition it into six neat, discrete factors? The network approach would suggest that, instead, your well-being represents the push and pull of the elements that roughly fall into these six categories.
Testing the Network Approach to Well-Being
To test out their novel approach to the PWBS, the Spanish research team administered a translated version to 1,404 adults recruited through the University of Lleida. Although the age range spanned a wide swath of adulthood (18-69 years old), the average was close to 22 years, and 75% identified as females.
The results, as the authors predicted, showed that the network analysis produced a very different outcome than would be predicted by the six-factor solution. Their conclusion is that well-being is best thought of not as a composite of scores on separate factors that “cause” it, but as a collection of clusters with nodes that can activate each other at varying times.
The most central of these nodes, the authors discovered, consists of the cluster corresponding to a combination of items from the three factors of self-acceptance, life purpose, and environmental mastery. The least central, you might be surprised to learn, was the item “When I think about it, I have not really improved much as a person over the years.”
The Four Questions You'll Need to Answer
The idea of a psychological quality as a 3-D cluster rather than as a flat hierarchy provides a very different way of conceptualizing well-being. To improve your own well-being, in this model, would mean that you would work on the most central nodes first which could then trigger other nodes to become activated.
Based on the findings, stimulating these central nodes would mean that you focus on the following four key items:
Most of the time, I feel proud of who I am and the life I lead.
In general, I feel positive and confident about myself.
I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality
In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live.
Rather than spend your energy sifting through all the many potential ways you could improve your well-being, start with these four and see whether the positive energy starts spreading elsewhere. These items all provide the advantage of being easy to understand and relatively self-explanatory. You can roll up your sleeves and start to work with each of them rather than have to worry about more complex and perhaps less readily translatable strategies.
To sum up, positive psychology can offer much in the way of inspiration for thinking about your behavior and the behavior of others in a more uplifting manner than you would find in “negative” psychology. Thinking of well-being as a cluster rather than a simple up-or-down scale from high to low can give you practical tools to use to help spread fulfillment through your own internal network of well-being.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.