What does ‘wellbeing’ mean?

‘Wellbeing’ is the holistic consideration of a person’s life experiences rather than just their physical or mental health. Health is an important component of wellbeing, which also considers purpose and meaning, life satisfaction and positive emotions and relationships. The relationship between health and wellbeing is not a simple one – not everyone who reports having good health also reports having high levels of wellbeing.

A dynamic definition of wellbeing, developed by Dodge et al. in 2012, describes it as the balance point between an individual’s resources and the challenges that they face in their everyday life. This is shown in the see-saw diagram below. When people have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing.

Wellbeing is important because evidence shows that people with high levels of wellbeing live longer, have lower rates of illness, recover more quickly from illness and stay well for longer, have more positive health behaviours and generally have better physical and mental health.

The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) is the measure chosen by Thrive Plymouth to assess and monitor levels of wellbeing in Plymouth. This scale measures social, emotional and psychological wellbeing using responses to 14 positively worded statements. Responses are given a score on a numerical scale with higher scores representing higher wellbeing. Average scores can be calculated for specific populations. There is also a shortened version which uses seven questions referred to as SWEMWBS. More information about these scales can be found on the mental wellbeing pages.

The average score for Plymouth is higher than for England (48.6 compared to 37.7). Variations in levels of wellbeing are found within the city, the average score ranging from a high of 51.1 in the Compton ward to a low of 45.5 in the Devonport ward. The relationship between wellbeing and health is not a simple one – areas with poorest health do not necessarily have poorer wellbeing scores. For example, St Peter and the Waterfront ward has a relatively high level of wellbeing but has a lower than average life expectancy for men and women.

In developing Thrive Plymouth, it was recognised that the relationship between wellbeing (happiness) and material deprivation is complex. There is a depth of material deprivation below which happiness is probably unlikely and a point on the wealth curve above which happiness is not guaranteed to increase. Seeking to understand and optimise wider influences on wellbeing other than material security is as important as broadening the middle ground of wealth. Therefore the freedom and capacity of people to make positive lifestyle choices in supportive social and environmental contexts is key to attaining wellbeing irrespective of levels of material deprivation.