Wellbeing is continuously sought both in our daily lives as well as in research. However, it’s rare that people stop and think what they actually mean by this concept, writes Postdoctoral Researcher Tiia Kekäläinen from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences.

The content of wellbeing varies by context. Are we talking about our personal, individual-level wellbeing or are we considering, for instance, how to measure the effects of a physical activity intervention on wellbeing? Are we perhaps talking about the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on wellbeing at the population level, or why Finns are the happiest people in the world?

In population-level comparisons, gross domestic product (GDP) may be used as an indicator of wellbeing. At the municipal level, people may talk about employment rates, for example.

Such population-level variables do not describe an individual’s wellbeing, however. At the individual level, wellbeing is usually defined in terms of individuals’ broadly subjective perceptions and experiences of their personal life.

Because this holistic experience and perception is difficult to capture, wellbeing is often examined as an umbrella concept that encompasses different subdomains. For example, we can talk about physical wellbeing and health, mental wellbeing, social wellbeing, even economic wellbeing.

As a consequence, when discussing and studying the topic, people often focus rather on the factors and preconditions of wellbeing than on wellbeing itself.

External factors explain an individual’s wellbeing experiences to just a small degree

Research at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences address a range of factors that promote health, functional capacity, and physical activity. All of these can, directly or indirectly, also promote wellbeing.

For example, research on environmental factors that support maintaining older people’s physical activity, or research dealing with promoting the motor development of kindergarten children, do not focus directly on wellbeing. Nevertheless, they yield information about promoting factors that contribute to wellbeing.

Indeed, the broad scope of the concept of wellbeing challenges both researchers and everybody using the term to consider what they mean by wellbeing in a particular context.

Research yields knowledge about factors associated with wellbeing. For example, we know that physical activity and functional capacity as well as a happy intimate relationship and sufficient income level are associated with higher wellbeing. When we move from research and averages down to the individual level, external factors explain relatively little about how an individual experiences personal wellbeing. Thus, in an individual’s life, the different subdomains of wellbeing and factors affecting it constitute a whole, which can be something more than just the sum of its parts.

People experience the same circumstances in different ways and review their lives individually. For example, for some health is a crucial aspect of wellbeing, while somebody else may be totally satisfied with one’s life in spite of health problems. One person may seek wellbeing on a jogging track, while another one may invest in meeting friends. These differences can be explained, for instance, by personality, life experiences, and social environment.

The writer is a postdoctoral researcher in gerontology at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences.

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