What is this concept of well-being we are all seeking? Simply put, it’s the perception that life is good. It encompasses social, emotional, physical, vocational and societal aspects of experience and functioning. This means that there are external determinants as well as internal factors that are essential to well-being. Mindfulness can play a significant role in cultivating the internal factors that support wellbeing, and it can help us see that our own happiness is inseparable from that of others, as well as the health of our planet, our only home. A consistent practice of mindfulness can help motivate us to act in ways that contribute to human flourishing within a thriving world.
Research tells us that before we can experience a sense of well-being, at the very least our basic needs must be met – things like clean air and water, enough food, shelter and clothing, safety and security, love and belonging, and a sense of self-worth. But many people in the world are unable to meet these basic needs. This is true in the US despite the fact that we are seen as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
According to the December 2020 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey by the Urban Institute, 20.5 percent of US adults reported household food insecurity, 14.9 percent reported problems paying family medical bills and 15.9 percent reported unmet needs for medical care because of cost, 10.8 percent reported difficulty paying utility bills with 2.6 percent experiencing shutoffs, and 9.3 percent reported problems paying the rent or mortgage. (Gonzalez et al. 2021). More than 45 percent of Black and Hispanic adults reported that their families experienced hardships meeting one or more basic needs.
Much of the world’s conflicts throughout history, as well as the damage to our natural environment, stem from the drive for humans to feel secure in meeting basic needs. A scarcity mindset leads some to hoard while others go without. But hoarding basic needs, power and opportunities is short-sighted. It reinforces a cycle of fear that eventually causes suffering for everyone. Newer research suggests that the gap between haves and have nots is more predictive of social unrest than the overall standard of living of a nation. So, sustainable well-being isn’t just an individual pursuit – it must include consideration of the other beings that we share the Earth with and the health of the planet we live on.
…fear is not an enemy. It is an enflamed, bruised apple of an emotion, trying to ensure welfare and keep you alive. Only tenderness seems to do anything worthwhile to fear. Only patience and curiosity can give it what it needs to morph or leave or stay. – Hala Alyan, Spiritual Ecology: Emergence Magazine
Although inequities have been on the rise globally, according to researchers at inequality.org, “Among industrial nations, the United States is by far the most top-heavy, with much greater shares of national wealth and income going to the richest 1 percent than any other country.” Wealth is the collection of assets held by a person or household at a single point in time while income is money flowing through a household over time. Although people in the US generally have high incomes relative to other countries, we are at the bottom for wealth with a much higher level of income inequality, including a larger gender wage gap (OECD).
The US is also surprisingly low in social capital, which is the the social consensus in a society that contributes to stability, conservation of resources, and well-being. The Social Capital Index combines factors such as: health care systems and their universal availability/affordability; income and asset equality; demographic structure; and freedom of expression, freedom from fear and the absence of violent conflicts. Due to comparable high crime rates, low availability of health services, and rising inequality, the US was ranked 109 of 180 in 2020.
Finally, Americans receive less time off for self-care and experience less social connection relative to people from many other countries (OECD). Although housing is relatively affordable here overall, we experience significant overcrowding and exposure to outdoor air pollution. We have a higher rate of homicide, a wider gender gap in feelings of safety, and our life expectancy is lower. Considering we are a nation with the highest Gross Domestic Product (value of goods and services produced) in the world, the well-being of our citizens leaves much to be desired.
It’s exciting that there is increasing interest in researching the factors that support well-being. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines well-being as “a relative state where one maximizes his or her physical, mental, and social functioning in the context of supportive environments to live a full, satisfying, and productive life.” This includes feeling healthy and interested enough to engage with life, experiencing a sense of meaning and purpose, optimism, self-acceptance, contentment, emotional balance, supportive relationships, and opportunities for personal growth. They’ve created an initiative based on this research for improving the health of all Americans.
The United Nations (UN) Foundation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the world’s shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. These interconnected goals offer a foundation for building a resilient, inclusive world that ensures no one is left behind and a framework to build sustainable, equitable societies where all people can thrive. The World Happiness Report is a UN publication providing rankings of national happiness based on respondent ratings correlated with a number quality of life factors. Rankings incorporate healthy life expectancy, social support, GDP per capita, the happiness of a country’s children, social capital, the civil economy, the absence of corruption, and subjective well-being. There are important lessons to be learned from the 2021 World Happiness Report in a pandemic year. Trust and generosity measures remained extremely important supports for well-being. The following factors together explained two-thirds of the international differences in COVID-19 death rates and supporting successful COVID-19 strategies:
- confidence in public institutions
- income equality and social trust
- learning and implementing lessons from earlier pandemics.
- head of the government was a woman
Bhutan’s principles of Gross National Happiness helped limit the impact of COVID-19 to only one death at the time of this writing, despite having strong international travel links. They were able to vaccinate 93% of eligible adults in less than two weeks after vaccine roll out. This country elevates collective needs over individual desires, works toward economic, environmental and cultural balance, and passes no law unless it improves citizens’ well-being. World Health Organization Representative Rui Paulo de Jesus reflected, “What I learned from Bhutan is that the health sector alone cannot do much to protect people’s health.” Instead Tenzing Lamsang, Bhutanese investigative journalist, said resilience must come from “things that we don’t count normally, like your social capital and the willingness of society to come together for the common good.”
The OECD Better Life Index compiles data from official sources such as United Nations Statistics, National Statistics Offices and the Gallup Organization to examine 11 indicators essential to well-being in terms of material living conditions (housing, income, jobs) and quality of life (community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance). Research is indicating that the happiest countries are those that build stronger social ties, have better-managed resources (such as clean air, water, and a habitable earth), and support a strong sense of community.
Individually, the Berkeley Wellbeing Institute offers a quiz that allows you to measure your well-being. Dr. Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness Website offers scientifically studied questionnaires measuring life satisfaction, love, personal strengths and happiness. If you’re curious about your own well-being, you might experiment with a few of these measures. For those who find themselves scoring low, there are strategies for improvement. Mindfulness is a foundational skill for increasing well-being, but we all have to work together if we’re to achieve lasting change. Our mindfulness practice can help us cultivate beneficial qualities, such as:
- improved attentional control, so we can see our situation more clearly and focus our energies on what is truly important
- improved emotional control, so that we can step out of the cycle of suffering and make wise decisions
- remembering to give thanks for the good things in life
- being kind and generous, helping others
- letting go of anger and blame
- acknowledging the positive, seeing through the human negativity bias, and fostering wise hope
- investing in relationships
- practicing self-compassion and resisting the pressure to compare yourself to others
- discovering what is meaningful, motivates and inspires you, such as exploring your spirituality, setting reasonable goals and pursuing your potential
This inner work can also resource us for the outer work of increasing well-being for all. When we’re happy, we have more energy, magnanimity, and resilience for serving others. We’re more willing to bear witness to the suffering around us and to stand up skillfully to injustice. We begin to understand that well-being is multifaceted and we are better equipped to meet complexity with patience, flexibility, and creativity. Finally, we come to recognize, in an embodied way, that none of us can be truly free until all of us are so.
We arrive in this world naked, dependent. Somewhere in the societal, cultural, familial conditioning of our lives, we become deluded into believing we are separate from others, from the Earth, and from the environment. By some sleight of hand, some illusion, we’ve become tricked into believing we are independent, solid, autonomous beings. We are encouraged to be strong in this illusion of independence. And we are rewarded with empty gifts, for our belief that acquisition of material wealth, of commodities and external objects, will bring happiness—will create a wall of safety around our lives and make us invincible. One of the things we rediscover as we travel this path is the tenderness we arrived with when we entered this worldly plane. We are waking up to reclaim the innate goodness that is our birthright. In this process of awakening, we are gaining the discernment of wisdom. This practice activates a memory of how to be naked in this world with each other. We get to learn again how to be naked of shame, naked of blame and judgment, naked of embarrassment and fear… The quality of all life is determined by how we treat ourselves and each other, how we care for each other, and how we consider all living beings. It is the quality of the contents of our hearts that determines whether we contribute to the very circumstances that cause pain, or whether we will actually effect some shift and movement toward something kinder and more equitable. – Amana Brembry Johnson