Resources for Policymakers & Practitioners

Well-being has long been a topic of interest in many disciplines (e.g., philosophy, psychology and economics). In public health, we are interested in how people attain well-being and its relation to health in different social and cultural contexts. Such efforts include investigating the practices and policies that can be designed to promote well-being and the extent to which these are informed by the latest science. This page provides information for policymakers and practitioners, including information on how different organizations and countries conceptualize, define, and measure well-being.

Defining Well-Being

There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being. Well-being can refer to the experience of positive emotions and moods, good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose in life, or physically feeling healthy and full of energy (CDC, 2018). Well-being is central in the widely used definition of “health” by the World Health Organization (WHO): “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1946). Policymakers often use “well-being” interchangeably with other terms. Some definitions are focused and specific while others are diffuse. Below, we present selected definitions for well-being and related terms.

If you are interested in evaluating individual-level well-being, please see our measurement page.

Selected Definitions of Well-Being and Related Terms

Well-Being

Happiness

  • Happiness, in this context, refers to well-being, high quality of life, and a flourishing existence. It is a state where many facets of one’s life are going well, including but not limited to feeling pleasure, having needs met, “being compassionate, realizing oneself, exhibiting virtue, and obtaining meaning in life.” [The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH. (2017). Happiness: Transforming the Development Landscape. Thimphu, Bhutan: The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH. http://www.bhutanstudies.org.bt/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Happiness-transform_Final_with-cover.pdf.]
  • Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” [Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Books.]

Flourishing

  • To flourish is to find fulfillment in our lives, accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks, and connecting with others at a deeper level—in essence, living the “good life.” [Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.]
  • Flourishing includes mental and physical health, “but also encompass[es] happiness and life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.” [VanderWeele, T. J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(31), 8148–8156. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1702996114]

Well-Being in Practice

Different nations and organizations across the globe conceptualize, define, and measure well-being in various ways. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and the Development (OECD) uses a battery of indicators that includes assessments of life satisfaction and physical health as well as educational attainment, housing conditions and quality of residential environment, whereas Gallup focuses on one index: life . The table below shows tools (and links to relevant websites) that nations and organizations across the globe use to assess well-being, and the different dimensions that each emphasize.

Life satisfaction Income/ employment Physical health Purpose Social & family relationships Environment* Education Safety*
OECD Better Life Index
Gallup World Poll
Gallup-Share care Well-Being Index
Human Development Index
BCG’s SEDA
Happy Planet Index
Canadian Index of Well-Being
European Social Survey
UK Annual Population Survey

* “Environment” refers to quality of natural environment whereas “Safety” refers to murder and assault rates.

Find a more detailed description of each measure below:

Scales for Measuring Well-Being

Scholars have developed different scales or instruments to measure well-being. Though well-being is a broad and multi-dimensional construct, existing measures of well-being can be conceptualized as falling into one of two domains: subjective and objective measures. For details on well-being measurement and the use of well-being scales in research, please see our measurement page for researchers.