Understanding well-being: Psychology for happy people

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In focusing so much on purely mental health, we are doing a disservice to the millions of individuals on our planet who need the tools, education, resources and understanding on what it means to ‘live well.’

Recently, the field of psychology has begun shifting away from an individual medical-model approach and towards a wider paradigm shift in preventative health through a dual-factor understanding of how a person functions and interacts with themselves and their social worlds.

Whereas the medical model restricts the lens of how we view psychology to the presence and eradication of symptomology at an individual level, a systems-level approach takes into consideration the biopsychosocial world that enriches, deepens, or hinders the psyche of a person. Consequently, mental health professionals (MHPs) are able to integrate many more variables in the make-up of who their clients are, such as; what are their interests, what their social relationships are like, what meaning do they derive from the world, what cultures do they belong to, or what community do they most identify with.

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But what is missing from the equation? In all this talk about mental health illness and all of the mechanisms by-which one may suffer from the chaos of their psyche, we are put in a precarious position, as social scientists and MHPs. What about those who aren’t depressed, anxious, suicidal, or schizophrenic? Does the absence of mental health symptomology automatically mean someone is well? That they are happy, at-peace, connected with their fellow man, and living in equilibrium with themselves and their worlds? What about those who aren’t suffering from mental health but who also are not happy?

Again we are confounded by what ‘happiness’ even is. We live in a world of those floating in the purgatory stage of zombie-fied existence; the walking dead, neither suffering nor fulfilled. In focusing so much on purely mental health, we are doing a disservice to the millions of individuals on our planet who need the tools, education, resources and understanding on what it means to ‘live well.’

This is called a Dual-Factor Model of Mental Health, which consists of both psychopathology (symptoms of a disorder) and well-being. The integration of the two being the catalyst for a movement known as Positive Psychology which seeks to equip individuals, both who have mental health illness and who don’t, with capabilities we all possess. The inner capacities to flourish, the infinite potentialities that we have to love, be loved, show kindness and compassion, be mindful, nonjudgmental and attentive to what is enveloping within us and how that relates to the worldview which we create.

The tools of a clinician dealing with the psyche cannot be constrained within a medical model. Through Brofenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory; we have the individual systems (how biology may effect mental illness), the microsystem level (immediate environments that can catalyst disease such as living in a low SES community), there also exists wider forces such as the exosystems level (how the person spends their time, what media/information the person consumes, what community services are available to the person), macrosystems level (cultural norms, societal tendencies and values unconsciously or subconsciously instilled in the person), mesosystems level (interactions between microsystemic influences such as work-school or work-family relationships) and chronosystems level (period of history one lives in and significant world events which influence the course of history).

More so, with a Dual-Factor approach; we are not only looking at what extraneous factors are exacerbating disease, but also the factors that support well-being. Research into religiosity and spirituality (R/S) has consistently found strong positive associations in R/S helping to reduce stress, low self-esteem, self-abusive behaviors (drug usage, risky sexual behaviors) and depressive mood (Vespa, 2010). Ano and Vasconcelles (2005) posit that R/S serves as a protective mechanism during times of stress, affecting psychosocial factors through self-regulation and self-control. Therefore, we add an additional layer to the onion; the biopsychosocial and spiritual levels of the human psyche.

Ultimately, a question for future researchers will be the philosophical conundrum of our day and age: what does it mean to be ‘well’? What does ‘happiness’ mean in today’s age? Is it even okay for us as a society to propel something so unachievable such as happiness as the maximum pursuit for a meaningful life? Is there something deeper in our psyches and souls that can help catalyst what is it we want from existence? Do we even know what is it we want from existence?

Ultimately, it is a question of short-term bliss, momentary pleasure, transient notions of ‘happiness’ or something more; to strive and maintain one’s nobility, virtues, self-discipline and ethics for longer term fulfillment, meaning and purpose. Or perhaps something even larger than that; to ultimately achieve well-being, we must contextualize who we are and what we do in a transcendent framework.

Below is a clip from Syed Rizvi presenting two opposing cases for ‘well-being’ at a National Association of Psychology Conference hosted in Atlanta, Georgia.

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