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Wellbeing without labels

In our everyday lives, we are deluged with information about our wellbeing. Our consumerist culture tells us it can be cultivated with the help of mindfulness meditation apps, wholesomely marketed vitamin supplements and exorbitantly priced sessions of goat yoga (sadly no longer practicable unless you have your own goats at home). Celebrities and influencers peddle their modern lifestyle merchandise, pledging to improve your wellness in exchange for a subscription to their website or a snippet of social media advertising revenue. To improve your wellbeing is to improve yourself, to engineer a “better you”. For marketers and entrepreneurs that has always been the ultimate dream to sell.

That said, wellbeing is not simply a con. As a concept it hints at the importance of certain fundamentals in our lives, those which are vital to maintaining a state of relative health and happiness. To think about wellbeing is to think about what matters, to focus on the relationships, lifestyle choices and attitudes which together help determine a life well lived. Some lucky people are born with an inner sense of contentment and purpose, but for others, this state of being requires practice and concerted effort to maintain. Regardless, a greater awareness of our own wellbeing can only be a positive guide, helping us to make more empowered choices and giving us a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Unfortunately, our understanding of wellbeing can sometimes fall prey to the tendencies of our technocratic age. If wellbeing is an internal state to be constantly maintained or improved, it follows that it requires constant monitoring and self-assessment. As individuals we are told to do this through the diligent personal practice of “self-care” and of “working on ourselves”. Meanwhile, in the interests of promoting social stability, governments strive to increase the collective wellbeing of entire societies, monitoring its progress through happiness indexes and social indicators, measuring against actionable targets. If wellbeing is the condition of an individual, a society, or a workplace, we cannot help but try to judge, quantify or compare the condition of others. We perceive another’s poor wellbeing like that of a neighbour’s unkempt garden: its poor upkeep must somehow reflect badly on those responsible for its maintenance.

Such judgment inevitably loses sight of the most important idea underlying wellbeing, which is that it is not something at which we can fail. In theory at least, wellbeing allows us to talk about our problems without labelling things as sicknesses, bad habits or failures. To improve your own wellbeing is not to meet others’ expectations, but to get the most out of this very precious life. The rest can come after. GB