Essay: Psychological Well-being

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  • Psychological Well-being
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The literature on psychological well-being has progressed rapidly since the emergence of the field over five decades ago. As recent surveys show psychologists and other social scientists have taken huge steps in their understanding of the factors influencing psychological/ subjective well-being. Psychological well-being refers to how people evaluate their lives. According to Diener (1997), these evaluations may be in the form of cognitions or in the form of affect. The cognitive part is an information based appraisal of one’s life that is when a person gives conscious evaluative judgments about one’s satisfaction with life as a whole. The affective part is a hedonic evaluation guided by emotions and feelings such as frequency with which people experience pleasant/unpleasant moods in reaction to their lives. The assumption behind this is that most people evaluate their life as either good or bad, so they are normally able to offer judgments. Further, people invariably experience moods and emotions, which have a positive effect or a negative effect. Thus, people have a level of subjective well-being even if they do not often consciously think about it, and the psychological system offers virtually a constant evaluation of what is happening to the person. Well-being is a multifaceted concept. It is often thought of as one of the hallmarks of the liberal arts experience, resulting from educational encounters that both guide students in the search for meaning and direction in life and help them realize their true potential. Research in wellbeing has been growing in recent decades (e.g., Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 1991). However, very early on in the research Ryff and Keyes (1995) identified that ‘the absence of theory-based formulations of well-being is puzzling’ (pp. 719’720). The question of how wellbeing should be defined (or spelt) still remains largely unresolved, which has given rise to blurred and overly broad definitions of wellbeing’ (Forgeard, Jayawickreme, Kern, & Seligman 2011).
Psychological well-being is about lives going well and it is the combination of feeling good and functioning effectively. Sustainable well-being does not mean that individuals all the time to feel good; the experience of painful emotions like disappointment, failure and grief are a normal part of life, and being able to manage these negative and painful emotions is essential for long-term well-being. Psychological well-being is, however, compromised when negative emotions are extreme or very long lasting and interfere with a person’s ability to function in his or her daily life.
The concept of feeling good incorporates not only the positive emotions of happiness and satisfaction, but also such emotions as interest, engagement, confidence, and affection. The concept of functioning effectively in a psychological sense involves the development of one’s potential, having some control over one’s life, having a sense of purpose (e.g. working towards valued goals), and experiencing positive relationships.
More recently, the WHO has defined positive mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’ (WHO, 2001).
World Health Organization defined quality of life as: an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns. It is a broad ranging concept affected in a complex way by the person’s physical health, psychological state, and personal beliefs, social relationships and their relationship to salient features of their environment (World Health Organization, 1997).
‘The psychological aspect refers to the emotional evaluation of a particular situation and is frequently operationalized as anxiety and depression (Blalock et al. 1989, Pincus & Callahan 1993, Krol et al. 1993). In order to assess the psychological aspect of quality of life the 28-item version of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-28) can be used. The General Health Questionnaire-28 is frequently used as an indicator of psychological well-being and this latter construct resembles the psychological dimension of quality of life’ (Goldberg & Hillier 1979, Sanderman & Stewart 1990, EURIDISS 1990, Krol et al. 1994) (as cited in Nagyova, Krol, Szilasiova, & Stewart, 2000).
This review of psychological wellbeing construct helps to know about the factors determining an individual’s level of psychological well-being, and the effects of well-being on our perceptions, thoughts, and behaviours, and on our physiology and health. It also explores how this knowledge may be utilized to improve well-being in individuals and in populations.
Historical background to wellbeing research.
Knowing the historical background to the study of wellbeing is necessary to the definition of wellbeing. Two approaches emerged: the hedonic tradition, which accentuated constructs such as happiness, positive effect, low negative effect, and satisfaction with life (e.g., Bradburn, 1969; Diener, 1984); and the eudaimonic tradition, which highlighted positive psychological functioning and human development (e.g., Ryff, 1989a; 1989b; Waterman, 1993). However, despite the differences in approach, most researchers now believe that wellbeing is a multi-dimensional construct (e.g., Diener, 2009; Michaelson, Abdallah, Steuer, Thompson, & Marks, 2009; Stiglitz, Sen, & Fitoussi 2009). Consequently, the diversity of dimensions has created a ‘confusing and contradictory research base’ (Pollard & Lee, 2003).
An early attempt to define wellbeing was Bradburn’s (1969) classic research on psychological wellbeing. His work marked a move away from the diagnosis of psychiatric cases to the study of psychological reactions of ordinary people in their daily lives. His discussion stemmed from his interest in how individuals coped with the daily difficulties that they faced. Bradburn highlighted how psychological wellbeing (which he also referred to as happiness) was the variable that ‘stands out as being of primary importance’. He linked this to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia, which is now more commonly translated as wellbeing. Aristotle believed this to be the overarching goal of all human actions. The majority of Bradburn’s research focused on the distinction between positive and negative effect. His model specified that: an individual will be high in psychological well-being in the degree to which he has an excess of positive over negative affect and will be low in well-being in the degree to which negative affect predominates over positive (Bradburn, 1969).
Although Ryff (1989) criticized Bradburn’s work for not defining the basic structure of psychological wellbeing, an emphasis on positive and negative affect has been central to the work of Diener and Suh (1997). They believed that: subjective well-being consists of three interrelated components: life satisfaction, pleasant affect, and unpleasant affect. Affect refers to pleasant and unpleasant moods and emotions, whereas life satisfaction refers to a cognitive sense of satisfaction with life (Diener & Suh, 1997). Headey and colleagues (Headey, Holmstrom, & Wearing, 1984a; 1984b; Headey, 2006) picked up on the need for positive and negative affects to be seen as distinct dimensions, rather than opposite ends of the same continuum (Bradburn, 1969) as they are ‘only moderately negatively correlated’ (Headey, 2006). This was more recently supported by Lee and Ogozoglu (2007) and Singh and Duggal Jha (2008). An early attempt to define wellbeing was Bradburn’s (1969) classic research on psychological wellbeing. His work marked a move away from the diagnosis of psychiatric cases to the study of psychological reactions of ordinary people in their daily lives. His discussion stemmed from his interest in how individuals coped with the daily difficulties that they faced. An individual will be high in psychological well-being in the degree to which he has an excess of positive over negative affect and will be low in well-being in the degree to which negative affect predominates over positive (Bradburn, 1969).
An interesting development is the way in which this area of wellbeing has impacted on clinical psychology. Joseph and Wood (2010) have called for clinical psychology to adopt measures of positive functioning. This is because they believe that psychiatry has adopted a restricted view of wellbeing, seeing it as ‘an absence of distress and dysfunction’. Therefore, the adoption of positive function would naturally broaden the field. They also believe that there is a possibility that this new slant on measurement will allow for prediction and treatment of distress and dysfunction. Research in this area has been undertaken by Keyes (2002; 2005), who views mental health as a syndrome of wellbeing symptoms. He believes that mental health is created ‘when an individual exhibits a high level on at least one symptom of hedonia and just over half the symptoms of eudaimonia, i.e., positive functioning in life’ (Keyes, 2009).
In essence, stable wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge. When individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing, and vice-versa. The definition supports Headey and Wearing’s (1992) aim to ‘understand how people cope with change and how their levels of well-being are affected’. However, the proposed definition contradicts Cummins’ idea of SWB being static when the individual is not challenged. Instead, we would argue, in line with Hendry and Kloep’s theory that a lack of challenge will lead to ‘stagnation’ (Hendry & Kloep, 2002).

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