For many millenniums humans have been trying to figure out the secret to wellbeing. Various philosophies and numerous religions have arisen with answers, methods, and sophisticated programs said to be “the way” to this elusive goal.
Before we get too far, we need to put some definition around the term “wellbeing.” What does it mean to be well? Word-roots of wellness include nuances of wholeness, health, and self-actualization (i.e., fullness and fulfillment).
And when we add “being” to wellness, we seem to be contemplating a holistic mode of existence that is fully functional, multidimensional, and all-encompassing.
We have a tendency to confuse wellbeing with other, also positive, experiences or conditions that humans desire. Pleasure, happiness, and prosperity serve as powerful lures that advertisers use to attract prospective costumers.
The most effective commercials lace all three together in their product placement. A video of successful, sexy, and smiling fashion models in a new sports car is offering us the ‘vehicle’ to what we really want in life.
But it doesn’t bring us wellbeing. It can’t, for the simple reason that wellbeing has nothing to do with how wealthy, good-looking, or cheerful we happen to be. It’s not about what we own, how others see us, whether we can manage a positive outlook on things, or are fortunate to live a long life.
Although wellbeing is multidimensional and all-encompassing, I believe it can be defined, which I will attempt to do in this post.
My diagram depicts an organic (growing up from the ground) schedule of what humans really want – we can legitimately say, what we need in order to enjoy wellbeing. As is the case with all growing and developing lifeforms, earlier stages correspond to more basic needs, critical functions, and essential structures of our nature. As these needs are satisfied in some sufficient degree, the stage is set for the emergence of more complex traits and capabilities ‘higher up’.
In an ironic twist of fate, the exceptional complexity and unique capabilities of human beings are dependent for their timely emergence on those earliest conditions of life when we are utterly helpless and vulnerable.
Our vulnerability puts us at risk of distracted, inept, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, resulting in a nervous state of chronic anxiety instead of one where we are more calm, centered, and open to our surroundings. In my diagram I distinguish these two states as insecurity and security, respectively (written as ‘in/security’). In what follows, we will track the two alternative paths: one leading in the healthy direction of wellbeing, and the other in a neurotic direction to something else.
So, in addition to giving positive definition to what we really want, I will also explain why so many of us settle for something less.
This term refers not only to the external conditions of life, but even more critically to the internal sense we have of reality as safe, supportive, and provident. When we were helpless newborns and very young children, our nervous system picked up on environmental cues to determine whether or not “the universe is friendly” (what Albert Einstein considered to be the most important question).
Besides regulating our body’s internal state, another of our brain’s primary functions is to match our internal state to the external conditions of our environment.
If we got the message that reality wasn’t provident, our nervous state was calibrated so as to maximize our chances of survival in an inhospitable universe. Hypervigilance, reactivity, and wariness over novelty or change were among the adaptive traits that would have improved our chances of survival.
Unfortunately, if this baseline anxious state was set early in life by chronic or traumatic exposure to harm, neglect, or deprivation, it is difficult to change later on, even when the threatening conditions are in the distant past and our present environment is actually benign and supportive.
When we have the assurance of a provident reality and are secure within ourselves, we are enabled to satisfy our need for connection. Humans are a social species, which means that by nature we thrive on intimacy and touch, empathy and trust, companionship and community. A calm and coherent nervous system grounded in a provident reality allows for the openness and creative freedom that healthy relationships require. Individuals connect out of their respective centers of identity, joining in mutual exchange and forging bonds of a common faith and shared understanding.
On the other hand, if we happen to carry within ourselves a deep insecurity regarding the nature of reality, our way of relating to others is very different. In early life we found therapy for our skittish nervous system by clinging to mother; she calmed us down and helped us feel safe. As the years went on and we eventually left home for the larger world, other individuals would fill her role in our life.
Because our sense of security – as well as our sense of identity – got wired into the presence and personality of someone else, we were unable to ‘stand on our own center’, but had to lean on (or cling to) them for the assurance we needed.
In Western psychology this is known as neurotic attachment; in Buddhism, just attachment (upādāna).
Meaning is not something we find in reality apart from human beings. We make meaning; or to use the more technical term, we construct it. And the context in which we construct meaning is known as culture. A flower, the moon, or even an historical event are intrinsically meaningless until our mind spins stories around them. In the social settings of culture, the process by which we engage in this co-construction of meaning is dialogue.
When we are secure within ourselves and feel the support of a provident reality, our connections with others are more healthy and stable. The meaning we construct together – which at the largest level constitutes our shared world – serves to reflect our curiosity and aspirations, clarify our values and beliefs, as well as orient us within the turning mystery of the Universe itself.
My single word for all of this is significance.
The root-word sign in ‘significance’ is suggestive of reference, of referring out to deeper, higher, larger, and farther-reaching horizons of being and time. Even if reality is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect) in itself, human beings are possessed of the need to make it meaningful, and to make our lives meaningful by linking them (as signs) to our local, cultural, planetary, and cosmic settings.
And what if we are deeply insecure and neurotically attached? Well, then our mind is not lifted by curiosity into the profound and expansive wonder of it all, but instead collapses into certainty around a few ‘absolute truths’ that anchor our perspective in life and protect our attachments. As I see it, conviction – this condition where our mind is boxed and held hostage inside our beliefs – is the neurotic opposite of an intellectual curiosity that characterizes our species at its best.
The problem with such boxes of conviction, of course, is that they don’t let in the air or light our mind needs to grow.
Our beliefs quickly lose relevance and realism, which means that we must try all the harder to convince ourselves and others that they really matter. In other posts I have qualified conviction as the most destructive power in the Universe, seeing as how much death and damage have been committed in its name over the millenniums.
If we take an evolutionary view of things and regard human self-consciousness as the penultimate stage (just before the transpersonal leap into creative authority, higher wholeness, and genuine community), then the phenomenon of conviction – where we feel compelled to reject, excommunicate, or destroy whomever doesn’t agree with us – is a point where the Universe has turned suicidally upon itself.
In the full picture we have been developing here, wellbeing is a mode of existence where we are securely grounded in a provident reality, empathically connected to each other, and mutually engaged in creating a meaningful world that is big enough for all of us.