In the pre-pandemic world, it is undeniable to say that mental health and its close cousin, wellbeing, have been high on the public agenda. With reports of increasing youth suicide rates and a proliferation of anxiety-based disorders, as well as a spotlight being shone on workplace burnout, wellbeing was already on many government and organisational radars in the years leading up to the pandemic. Add to this the explosion of self-help books and podcasts which have been marketed at the “thirty plus-ers” and I’m sure that many teachers have had a growing awareness and sensitivity to its importance.
I’m genuinely glad that the seeds were already being planted.
Nine months ago, the pandemic came along and all of a sudden the idea of wellbeing exploded. Schools were simultaneously contested as sites of poor wellbeing (increasing exam pressure, social media challenges, the pressure to grow up faster than many of us working in education arguably had to), whilst also being pressured to actively promote the importance of maintaining wellbeing to students.
Wellbeing can be defined as “the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and ability to manage stress… More generally, wellbeing is just feeling well.” Whilst wellbeing is a difficult term to pin down because it’s broadness, however it is defined, it is definitely something that is good to work towards—because the consequences can only be positive!
Many governmental, non-governmental, and health agencies have adopted a derivation of the “5 ways to wellbeing” which includes connection, being active, taking notice (similar to mindfulness), learning, and giving. One model related to wellbeing that I personally like a lot (particularly for adults) is the “six dimensions of deep health” by Krista Scott-Dixon and Brian St. Pierre, which includes:
- Relational health - Being connected and authentic with others. Feeling supported and like you “belong.”
- Existential health - Feeling a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
- Mental health - Being alert, focused, competent, and thoughtful. Learning, remembering, and solving problems well.
- Physical health - Feeling vibrant, energized, and thriving. Performing and functioning well.
- Emotional health - Experiencing a full range of emotions and expressing them appropriately.
- Environmental health - Knowing your everyday surroundings support your health and wellbeing.
For me, I feel that this model better encapsulates the nuances of the things that make us well, such as authentic connection (not just any form of connection) with others, and a definition of mental health that incorporates not just the absence of depression or anxiety, but a state in which our brain performs at its potential.
Whichever definition, framework, or steps resonate most with you, one of the things I think can often be missing from the discussion around wellbeing is the idea that wellbeing is individual to each of us. Whilst all six (or however many) of these areas are important to be aware of or pay attention to, sometimes I feel that they can act as a checklist that determines how “well” or “unwell” I’m doing, depending how many I am “achieving” or doing at any one time. Whilst it may be initially helpful to use such a framework to provide a wellbeing “snapshot,” such box-ticking cannot do justice to the complexity and transience of wellbeing, nor does it take into account the vast range of individual differences that exist within human beings.
What I have found more useful is Krista Scott-Dixon’s assertion that wellbeing or “deep health” may be more helpful to think of as a “fingerprint.” Just as our fingerprints are unique to us, our “wellbeing fingerprint” is unique to us as well. Rather than aiming to achieve a certain level of wellbeing in all five or six areas, perhaps we can be allowed to place different levels of importance to these areas depending on our personal preferences. As a result, our optimal wellbeing profiles may end up a little spikier.
For example, for some people existential health is absolutely crucial, and they can end up dedicating their lives to this. Think of the people who choose to row across oceans, or scale large mountains, to raise thousands of pounds for charity. For them this might be by far the most important area of wellbeing, and any absence of it felt most acutely. For others, relational health takes precedence, and they will devote their energies to sustaining and enriching the personal relationships they have. Neither person is more or less “well” than the other, they simply derive wellbeing from different areas.
The takeaway? It’s ok for your wellbeing fingerprint to be different, or spikier, than someone else’s.
This is an important thing to note for both us as teachers and for our students, particularly when designing or implementing wellbeing programmes and initiatives for schools. Rather than a blanket focus on all areas of wellbeing, encouraging students to consider their individual wellbeing fingerprints and fostering their ability to understand and identify what it is that helps them feel well, may be far more beneficial to their long-term wellbeing.
Rather than working with a conception of wellbeing as an arduous to-do list that is supposed to make us feel better if we can only get all of the plates spinning, perhaps we just need to choose the right plates to spin!
Dr Sadie Hollins is the Head of Sixth Form at Lanna International School in Thailand and is the creator of the WISEducation wellbeing blog and newsletter. She is on Twitter @_WISEducation.