Three generations of family gather around a candle lit dinner of farm raised turkey, vegetable soup, corn, homemade bread and butter. The crackling fire provides warmth and comfort, helping them forget the sounds of the blustery winds and winter-like conditions outside. The adults each feel a sense of personal well-being. They have their health and basic physical needs met, while being surrounded by their family. They share the meal in celebration of achieving purpose, love, connection, competence and success in what they have accomplished.
We may relate to this family by associating it with the traditional Thanksgiving dinner depicted by Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom From Want painting. Yet there is one major difference, this family is dreading their next trip to the outhouse in the sub-freezing conditions. It is 1866.
The family is getting ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. For most of human existence and up until 150 years ago, they were experiencing the traditional definition of well-being. Life was more physically demanding then. There with fewer ways to define well-being and even fewer ways to achieve it. It was mostly about health, families and addressing basic physical needs (food, water, shelter, safety and clothing). Achieving basic needs consumed most waking hours. Hard work was the proven recipe for a good life.
Over the past 150 years, modern medicine, new innovations and efficiency of labor through industrialization has enabled people to spend less time working to achieve their basic physical needs. Our modern day has added about 38 years to life expectancy. Yet, with more time each day, fewer health issues and longer lives, why does it seem more complicated?
150 years ago, they probably didn’t hear people would say, “I don’t find my job rewarding”. It was unlikely they would become consumed deciding between work and family or finding balance in their lives. They were able to feel love, connection and a special bond working together for their common goal of achieving basic needs. They were able to feel a sense of competence sharing those hard earned dinners with family members who each contributed.
Over that same 150 years, the study of human psychology has also evolved. We are getting a better understanding of what we really want and how we define well-being. Sigmund Freud provided us insight into our unconscience and how we think, along with the tools of psychoanalysis. Abraham Maslow introduced the Hierarchy of Needs describing our progression from achieving our basic physical needs to self-actualization. Positive Psychology offers insight into how we define a good life. Behavioral Economics has brought us psychological insights into decision-making that revealed it’s much more than about money and physical goods. Behavioral neuroscience researchers are using advanced imaging innovations to analyze activity within our brain’s pre-frontal cortex to understand what we want.
These models and frameworks provide insight into human motivation to achieve short term and meaningful, longer term rewards. They help illustrate the sacrifices and risks were willing to endure for the delayed gratification from purpose, meaning, love and success. For each of us, there is a unique definition of personal well-being. While we are a lot alike, we are truly individuals. A modern framework to understand Personal Well-Being may help us better understand ourselves, people we love and those that we interact with. Behavioral Economists tell us that we are much more than economic maximizers. We want to feel a sense of purpose, be loved and feel competent. The more we understand our personal definition, the more focus we can have in our pursuit of well-being.
Modern Basic Needs
As outlined in Maslow’s hierarchy, we need to achieve our basic needs before we can begin self-actualization of the highest level of well-being. For the 10% of the world’s population living on less than $2 per day, it is challenging to achieve shelter, heat, air conditioning, electricity, food, safety, water and sanitation. For most people living in modern developed nations, achieving these basic physical needs is often taken for granted. A modern definition of basic needs is achieving the minimal level of health, money and support to enable self-actualization of your desired definition of well-being. We know that health concerns, money issues and lack of support can be disabling and stressful. It can even negatively impact our health and well-being.
Health – Without a basic level of health for yourself and your immediate family, nothing is possible. Addressing our physical and mental health needs can consume the entire pre-frontal cortex, leaving little room for anything else. Functional health conditions (i.e., can’t walk, disabling pain) can limit what we can achieve and/or force us to redefine our ideal of well-being.
Financial – The lack of money to achieve basic needs and/or financial stress can be disabling. You can’t pursue your definition of well-being if you are worrying about making more money, reducing your living standards or the threat of major disruptions. It is very difficult to improve well-being until these basic need are addressed.
Family & Support – Without the physical and emotional support of your spouse, family, friends or employer it can be difficult to focus on pursuing your desired level of well-being. You may need help picking up your child from day care, providing caregiver support to your sick parent or be afraid to call in sick at work because of the impact on others.
If you have your health, the money to support your living standards and the support you need, you have met your modern basic needs. This enables you to focus on self-actualization of a higher level of well-being as Maslow outlined. While our basic needs are mostly about physical needs, our true measure of well being is mostly about our intrinsic needs:
Purpose & Meaning – Being a part of making something meaningful happen. Millions of people earn a modest income sacrificing lucrative salaries for the opportunity to make differences in people’s lives. We put careers and finances on hold to raise families, send kids to college or create businesses. We try to find purpose in tragedies by dedicating our lives to serve a cause that gives more meaning to the loved ones we lost.
Love & Connection – Through meaningful relationships and being with those that let us be ourselves. We drop everything in our lives for those we love. We sacrifice job opportunities and the pursuits of passion to spend time with our families. There is nothing more special than being able to share thoughts with a close friend without any explanations to give it context. It’s seeing understanding in the eyes of our confidant that is listening.
Competence & Control – We put our lives on hold to train, compete and win (Olympics, Ironman competitions) for the reward of feeling competent and successful. Entrepreneurs and scientists are relentless in the pursuit of solving a problem or making a discovery that is more about achieving success than the financial reward. We purchase luxury cars and expensive homes as symbols to ourselves and others that we are a success. We love recognition of our competence. We play video games till 2am to beat our high scores and subconsciously speed up to not let people in the next lane pass us.
This modern definition of well-being may explain why the end of intimate relationships through death, divorce or break-ups can be so devastating. In just one action, you lose purpose and meaning (role of spouse, and being there for them), love and connection (feeling alone, less connected, left out) and competence (not feeling needed, even worse, feeling rejected). You realize that you may never get it back or it would require a long, arduous journey if it is possible.
Personal Well-Being is not about happiness which can be influenced by a cheerful mood, pleasure, frustration or the events of the day. Nor is it about positive thinking. It is about having enough health, money and support. It is about feeling purpose & meaning, love & connection and competence & control. Billionaires become philanthropist to find purpose and meaning. We do crazy things to find true love and relationships with intimate connections. Olympic medals winners willingly spend another 4 years training because winning once is not enough.
In our modern day, it more complicated and challenging to achieve our desired definition of personal well-being. It needs to pieced together from many different domains within our lives, rather than from hard work achieving basic physical needs like 150 years ago. While few wish they lived in 1866 to experience the trips to the outhouse on cold blustery days, many long for the simpler, traditional definition of well-being. We can’t go back, so understanding what we really want may bring us focus to simplify our lives and improve our personal well-being.