Toward a Wholistic View of Well-being

Volume 1 – No. 5

Is well-being more about passivity? That is, how a person is doing now, today, at this moment? Or is it more about movement, steps taken toward improving well-being? Our friend Clay Routledge at the Archbridge Institute claims it’s about ‘agency.”

“When people lack agency, they are passive, believing external factors solely determine outcomes. They may want positive change but doubt their ability to make a difference. With agency, people are active, trusting in their power to better their own and others’ lives.”

People in the Collective have agency and believe that encouraging it in others is important. That’s why we are on this journey to learn more about the science of wellbeing so that ultimately, we might choose to help more kids thrive, more parents succeed and more places flourish.

Question to ponder: Is agency learned, earned or inherited?

Toward a Holistic View of Wellbeing: Outward, Future, and Action-Oriented

By Clay Routledge, PhD
Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab
Archbridge Institute

Wellbeing is big business. Americans spend billions of dollars per year on wellbeing-related products, services, and experiences. The Global Wellness Institute estimates the value of the global wellbeing economy to be close to $5 trillion and projects continued growth. This worldwide industry expansion reflects human progress and flourishing, with more people able to prioritize wellbeing as their basic needs are met.

However, the way our society currently conceptualizes and seeks to maximize wellbeing may ultimately be a barrier to human progress and flourishing. People tend to view wellbeing as more inward-focused than outward-focused, more about feelings than action, and more about today than the future. Positive wellbeing is equated with feeling good about one’s own life in the present moment.

I propose that wellbeing can’t be fully captured by how one feels about their own life at any single point in time. It is not as simple as the current presence of pleasant psychological states and absence of unpleasant ones. A more holistic conception would recognize human potential and functioning beyond the self, including actions taken to positively impact the world, even when such actions cause personal distress. It would also value future-oriented striving that often involves enduring negative states to achieve meaningful long-term goals.

The Popular View of Wellbeing

Wellbeing is commonly defined as a state of happiness, healthiness, and contentment, with good overall physical and mental health. Some expand the concept to include social and economic health as well.

However, these conceptualizations are essentially self-oriented, concerning the extent to which individuals feel their various personal needs are being met. Even social wellbeing in this context refers to one’s own satisfaction with their level of belongingness, rather than what they do to help others feel socially connected.

These views are also very present-focused, emphasizing current feelings over long-term plans and aspirations. Wellbeing is seen as more about introspection than action.

For instance, consider two individuals feeling similarly sad and lonely, indicating emotional and social wellbeing deficits. But what if one actively takes steps to improve her life and help others by attending fitness classes, volunteering, and seeking community, while the other surrenders to despair and seeks only temporary hedonistic escape?


The first looks outward, plans for the future, and takes emotional risks that may temporarily increase discomfort but build a better life long-term. Starting an exercise routine and putting oneself out there socially can be unpleasant and anxiety-provoking in the short run. Conversely, the second avoids such risks and remains stuck.


The popular wellbeing view would characterize these individuals similarly based on their current mental states. But it’s clear one is exhibiting agency, making positive contributions, and investing in the future, while the other is not. Similarly, relying on current popular conceptions of wellbeing would suggest that an individual feeling happy today but lacking future-oriented and prosocial engagement is better off than a stressed individual pursuing challenging long-term goals that strengthen the community.


Why We Need a More Outward, Future, and Action-Oriented Conceptualization of Wellbeing


A more outward, future, and action-oriented conceptualization would better capture human potential, optimal functioning, and the key ingredients for individual and societal flourishing. It would recognize vital endeavors currently omitted from wellbeing discussions.


Consider entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs meet community needs, provide jobs that allow people to contribute meaningfully, create social gathering spaces, and drive innovations that improve quality of life. A thriving business community benefits everyone.


Entrepreneurs are driven by more than money. They feel called to use their talents to fill societal gaps. Some are motivated by upward mobility or work-life balance. Entrepreneurial activities showcase self-determination, creativity, resilience, and passion for positive impact, even in the face of stress and uncertainty. Success requires sacrifice and isn’t guaranteed.


The current view might characterize many entrepreneurs as having poor wellbeing amidst their challenging journeys. But a broader conception would recognize their vital role and the rich, purpose-driven nature of their lives as they strive to serve, create, and innovate.


A more outward, future, and action-oriented view of wellbeing would include a range of activities, such as entrepreneurship, that reflect people’s efforts to go out in the world and serve, create, build, or innovate. The artist striving to bring beauty to the world, the scientist seeking to cure a disease that causes great suffering, the teacher working to inspire young people to cultivate a passion for learning, the soldier serving out of a sense of duty to the nation, the parent prioritizing good child rearing over personal hobbies, and the philanthropist endeavoring to help solve the big challenges of our time are all engaged in activities that make their lives richer and improve the world.


Some scholars like Carol Ryff have expanded thinking around wellbeing by proposing multidimensional frameworks including elements like positive relationships, autonomy, mastery, personal growth, life purpose, and self-acceptance. While still emphasizing feelings, some dimensions incorporate more behavioral and future-oriented items. We need more such research, but the key cultural shift is convincing people to value doing good over feeling good and to inquire about what people do with their lives, not just their current mental state.


Agency in Action


Making agency central to our discussions of wellbeing would underscore its social nature. Agency involves self-reflective ownership of one’s capacity to improve life for oneself and others. It begins with cognition but pushes people to act in the world.


When people lack agency, they are passive, believing external factors solely determine outcomes. They may want positive change but doubt their ability to make a difference. With agency, people are active, trusting in their power to better their own and others’ lives.


My existential psychology work on meaning in life shaped my wellbeing views. I’ve found meaning emerges more from socially agentic action than abstract contemplation. People find the most meaning in close relationships and contributing to loved ones’ lives. Parents, for example, report higher meaning when caregiving vs. doing other activities. Pursuing a meaningful life motivates prosocial acts like volunteering and charitable giving.

The full article can be found here.