If you have driven to Denver on Interstate 70, you’ve seen the infamous I-70 sign, “Truckers Don’t Be Fooled, You’re Not Down Yet.” When the warning appears and the city looms ahead, it seems as though the steep mountain passes are behind you. And, momentarily, they are. Then, the sign alerts you to the reality that there are tricky curves and sharp descents still to come.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was always a signpost to alert you to your life’s next downhill or uphill encounter?
Because let’s face it: “Life will go through changes – up and down and up again. It’s what life does,” as Ben Okri, the brilliant Nigerian novelist and poet put it. As the pandemic has interrupted the daily flow of life and much of the world is reportedly experiencing higher levels of grief, anxiety, stress and restlessness, we are perhaps more aware than ever of the rollercoaster effect.
So, how can we move through life with a sense of well-being that transcends these inevitable undulations?
Well-being is the extent to which a person is satisfied or “well” in their “being.” It is ultimately concerned with human happiness, though the two terms are not interchangeable. Well-being extends beyond a momentary pleasure to encompass notions of a sense of purpose and quality of life. It differs from person to person and from time to time in an individual’s life. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as a positive outcome because it indicates that people perceive their lives are going well and feel good about it.
But what this positive outcome looks like is difficult to pin down because well-being is multidimensional and inherently subjective. So much so that many researchers refer to it as “subjective well-being.” It is theorized and measured on multiple levels: physical, psychological, financial, functional, social, spiritual, existential and a combination of these dimensions.
It is also contextual. The curves and mountainous passes of I-70 are real indeed. However, they are more dangerous when driving a truck or a ‘beater car’ than a four-wheel drive, more hazardous during a snowstorm than a bluebird day and more challenging for the novice driver than an experienced one.
For the past 15 years, Gallup has been conducting research globally into what constitutes well-being and to better understand how people lead their lives. Their initial global assessment, the Well-Being Finder, was tested across 150 countries in local languages, with people from very different backgrounds and life circumstances. The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index arose from that research.
The Well-Being Index is composed of five interrelated domains of well-being: sense of purpose (liking what you do each day and your career), social relationships (having supportive relationships and love in your life), financial security (managing your economic life to reduce stress), relationship to community (liking where you live and feeling safe) and physical health (having good health and feeling energized).
Not surprisingly, the Gallup 2021 Global Emotions Index, a companion index, found 2020 was the most stressful year since polling began in 2008, with 40% of adults globally reporting that they experienced worry or stress the day before the survey. Of greater significance is that negative experiences (worry, stress, sadness and anger) were already at record highs in 2019, before the pandemic.
What does this tell us about how to attain well-being? First, the data suggest that you are not alone. Although social media often makes it look like everyone else is enjoying the good life, this simply is not the case. You can put away the filtered, Photoshopped lives of others and acknowledge what the numbers are telling us: everybody else’s life is not perfect. Try talking with your friends and family about your life experiences, since supportive relationships are vital for your well-being and your health. That’s two domains on the Well-Being Index for the price of one.
The research also suggests that we should give ourselves a break. The social and economic environment and context substantially influence our well-being. You can take responsibility for only what is in your control. Thankfully, many things are in our control. According to a Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Heckman, you can learn new skills throughout your life (financial management, exercise) — even your attitudes and a sense of purpose can be developed.
Finally, take time to recognize the good in your life. In 2007, the Rocky Mountain News reported that CDOT’s I-70 sign reduced fatalities by 50%, even as traffic grew — thus demonstrating that awareness works. It doesn’t seem that CDOT will be constructing life-warning signposts anytime soon, so we need to become more aware of our internal signposts.
As Okri writes, “Our time here is magic! It’s the only space you have to realize whatever it is that is beautiful, whatever is true, whatever is great, whatever is potential, whatever is rare, whatever is unique in [your life]. It’s the only space.” Discovering this space may be the true secret to well-being.
The topics of Money Matters relate to compilations and reflections from Barbara Freeman’s extensive work with government and intergovernmental agencies and the nonprofit and private sectors across five continents. She is the founder and CEO of LaMedichi, a Roaring Fork Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to enabling people who are unbanked and underbanked to achieve financial security. To reach her, email Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.