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What is psychological wellbeing?

At Robertson Cooper, our focus is on creating more Good Days at Work and that is partly driven by ensuring employees have good psychological wellbeing. Let’s take a look at what we mean by that.

What is psychological wellbeing?

At the most basic level, psychological wellbeing (PWB) is quite similar to other terms that refer to positive mental states, such as happiness or satisfaction, and in many ways it is not necessary, or helpful to worry about fine distinctions between such terms. If I say that I’m happy, or very satisfied with my life you can be pretty sure that my psychological wellbeing is quite high!

What are the key components of psychological wellbeing?

Psychological wellbeing has two important facets. The first of these refers to the extent to which people experience positive emotions and feelings of happiness. Sometimes this aspect of psychological wellbeing is referred to as subjective wellbeing (Diener, 2000).

Subjective wellbeing is a necessary part of overall psychological wellbeing but on its own it is not enough.

To see why this is so, imagine being somewhere that you really enjoy, perhaps sitting on a yacht in the sunshine, with your favourite food and drink and some good company – or alone if that’s how you’d prefer it! For most people that would be very enjoyable, for a week or two but imagine doing it not just for a week but forever! There are very few people who would find that prospect enjoyable. The old saying may be true, you can have too much of a good thing. What this example brings home is that to really feel good we need to experience purpose and meaning, in addition to positive emotions.

So, the two important ingredients in psychological wellbeing are the subjective happy feelings brought on by something we enjoy AND the feeling that what we are doing with our lives has some meaning and purpose.

Types of psychological wellbeing

    1. The term “Hedonic” wellbeing is normally used to refer to the subjective feelings of happiness. It comprises of two components, an affective component (high positive affect and low negative affect) and a cognitive component (satisfaction with life). It is proposed that an individual experiences happiness when positive affect and satisfaction with life are both high (Carruthers & Hood, 2004).
    2. The less well-known term, “Eudaimonic” wellbeing is used to refer to the purposeful aspect of PWB. The psychologist Carol Ryff has developed a very clear model that breaks down Eudaimonic wellbeing into six key types of psychological wellbeing.
      Eudaimonic and Hedonic
      Self-acceptance: High scores reflect the respondent’s positive attitude about his or her self. An example statement for this criterion is “I like most aspects of my personality”[3]Environmental mastery: High scores indicate that the respondent makes effective use of opportunities and has a sense of mastery in managing environmental factors and activities, including managing everyday affairs and creating situations to benefit personal needs. An example statement for this criterion is “In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live”.[3]Positive relations with others: High scores reflect the respondent’s engagement in meaningful relationships with others that include reciprocal empathy, intimacy, and affection. An example statement for this criterion is “People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others”.[3]Personal growth: High scores indicate that the respondent continues to develop, is welcoming to new experiences, and recognizes improvement in behavior and self over time. An example statement for this criterion is “I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world”.[3]Purpose in life: High scores reflect the respondent’s strong goal orientation and conviction that life holds meaning. An example statement for this criterion is “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them”.[3]Autonomy: High scores indicate that the respondent is independent and regulates his or her behavior independent of social pressures. An example statement for this criterion is “I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are contrary to the general consensus”.[3]

Theories of psychological wellbeing

Theories about psychological wellbeing generally focus on understanding the structure of psychological wellbeing or the dynamics (i.e. the causes and consequences of PWB). The breakdown of psychological wellbeing into hedonic and eudaimonic components and Carol Ryff’s model are widely accepted theories of the structure of PWB.

As far as the dynamics of PWB are concerned it’s important to recognise that, to some extent, PWB is relatively stable and will have been influenced by both previous experience (including, for example, early upbringing) and underlying personality. Stressful experiences can predispose people to subsequent mood and anxiety disorders (Gladstone, Parker and Mitchell, 2004); but, on the other hand exposure to extremely traumatic events can help to build resilience and actually protect PWB. For example children exposed to moderately stressful events seem better able to cope with subsequent stressors (Khobasa & Maddi, 1999). The same “inoculating” impact of stressful events has also been observed in working adults (Soloman, Berger and Ginsberg, 2007).

Although baseline psychological wellbeing may be fairly stable, day to day events and experiences also exert an impact. For example, even the most resilient person may eventually become very low, or depressed, if his or her daily experiences are constantly troubling. There is strong evidence to show that exposure to work-related stressors over long periods of time will have a negative impact on PWB, so, although as mentioned above, short periods of adversity may be helpful in building resilience,  long-term stress is not good for PWB. In turn, this lower level of PWB may well lead to serious illness, including cardiovascular disease, problems with blood sugar control, such as diabetes and immune system malfunctions (Chandola et al, 2008).

In summary, PWB theory proposes that early experience and underlying personality create a platform for psychological wellbeing but everyday experiences can help to maintain a good level of PWB (if they are positive) or, if they are negative, reduce levels of PWB, leading, in turn, to poor health outcomes.

Understand what is impacting psychological wellbeing in your organisation with our organisational health check


1 Diener, E. (2000) Subjective wellbeing: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34-43.

2 Ryff, C.D., Singer, B.H. and Love, G.D. (2004) Positive health: connecting wellbeing with biology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 359, 1383-1394.

3 Seifert, T. A. (2005). The Ryff scales of psychological well-being. Assessment Notes.

Chandola, T. et al., (2008) Work stress and coronary heart disease: What are the mechanisms? European Heart Journal, 29, 640-648.

Gladstone, G. L., Parker, G. B., Mitchell, P. B., Malhi, G. S., Wilhelm, K., & Austin, M. P. (2004). Implications of childhood trauma for depressed women: an analysisof pathways from childhood sexual abuse to deliberate self-harm and revictimization. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161, 1417–1425.

Khoshaba, D. M., & Maddi, S. R. (1999). Early experiences in hardiness development. Consulting Psychology Journal, 51, 106–116.

Solomon, Z., Berger, R., Ginsberg, K. (2007). Resilience of Israeli body handlers: Implications of repressive coping style. Traumatology, 13, 64–74.