The starting premise of this article is that within existing approaches the nature of the interrelationship between components of wellbeing is both under-conceptualized and under-measured. This paper contrasts three perspectives of wellbeing component interrelationship. The first and most common is a hierarchical approach, which prioritizes economic wellbeing and uses this to fund attainment of other components of wellbeing, such as social and environmental. A second perspective, which we call aggregation approaches, list dashboards of wellbeing components and average them. Both of these approaches emphasize the dependence and independence of the underlying components respectively. In this paper we develop a conceptualization of wellbeing based on the interdependence of eight components: economic, environmental, social, cultural, psychological, physical, spiritual and cultural. Our theory of interdependence is a multarity-based view of wellbeing which sees the latter as emerging from the integrated leveraging of at least four fundamental polarities: economic and environmental, physical and psychological, material and spiritual and social and cultural. Wellbeing costs increase and value creation opportunities lost when interdependence between components is ignored.
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See, for example, the 2018 announcement by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/101066981/nz-government-to-lead-world-in-measuring-success-with-wellbeing-measures. Also, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (Smale and O’Rourke 2018).
This list is theoretically robust enough to be used as a basis for testing and building alternative theories of component integration, which is our purpose here. The list though may not be exhaustive and other components may be discerned. However, we are interested in those components which integrate to form a unity and feel this list is comprehensive, widely recognized, as well as internally coherent, which we elaborate throughout the paper.
Throughout our paper when we refer to the ‘eight components’ we are meaning: economic, environmental, social, cultural, psychological, spiritual, physical and material components of wellbeing. We are interested in how these eight form a unity.
Multarity can also mean more than two variables that are interdependent. This is in contrast to ‘polarity’ which is two interdependent variables. We use the term differently to refer to multiple polarities which integrate to form a unity.
In defining spiritual wellbeing we follow the work of Pargament (2007) and mean development of the human spirit. This is spirituality in the human rather than theological sense and so is not based on any particular stance regarding ontological truth or religious claims. Some may choose to forgo this component of wellbeing (eg. atheists) in which case they seek to make up for its wellbeing purpose by inflating other components, eg. materialism, psychological inner work, environmental homage. The view taken here though is that human spirit is a legitimate dimension of human experience requiring distinct practices for development. When the human spirit is developed it offers the individual resources for dealing with life’s toughest challenges and search for meaning different from more secular methods (Pargament and Sweeney 2011). Spiritual wellbeing guards against particular types of inflation which disturb wellbeing when spirituality is absent. Spiritual wellbeing is also not synonymous with religion. Religion is seen as an institutional expression of spirituality (King et al. 2001). One can then be spiritual but not religious by seeking other avenues for spiritual development. Spiritual wellbeing allows many paths to its fulfilment. Some multi-item scales, such as the Personal Wellbeing Index (2013) though make spirituality and religion an optional domain in their scales due to many respondents claiming it as not applicable to them (International Wellbeing Group 2013).
A criticism of the aggregation approach that we don’t explore further here concerns whether a universal list of wellbeing components is possible or valid.
Reflected in measures of material intensity per unit of economic welfare (GDP per capita) (Bithas and Kalimeris 2017).
For a discussion of the wellbeing effects of materialism and extrinsic motivation see Bartolini and Sarracino (2017).
That periods of ill-being could be constructive to long-term wellbeing is an issue we leave aside for now. Indeed, wellbeing itself can be seen as part of a polarity where its opposite pole involves constructive periods of dissolution of wellbeing or disequilibrium. The examination of wellbeing as a polarity with disequilibrium is an area for future conceptualization and research. Such work more fully embraces the range of human polarity experience than wellbeing alone.
We thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.
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The authors would like to express sincere gratitude to Leslie DePol and Susan Dupre from Polarity Partnerships for their invaluable insights and expertise in all things polarity. The paper benefitted greatly from their feedback.
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Newey, L., de Oliveira, R.T. Wellbeing as Emergent from the Leveraging of Polarities: Harnessing Component Interdependencies. Soc Indic Res 144, 575–600 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-019-02061-8