Concern with well-being has been with man kind for as long as we remember. However, the definition of well-being and how we generate it and who is responsible, however, has changed over time.
There was a time when people left the responsibility of one’s well being to their clan, their community and believed that if all was well with the community or clan, their well-being was taken care of as also the reverse; i.e. if they had a sense of well-being with themselves, then the community as a collective also had a sense of well-being with itself. Often in such diffused state, individual’s sense of well being had to be sacrificed at the alter of the collective well being.
Then came a time when we were told that a sense of well being came with who you are in your roles that your establish with the world at large – be it in the family, at work, in the world and wherever else. If we maintained the balance in the relationship well, well-being would be guaranteed was the assurance. This created the misbalance that we did not know how to relate to ourselves and to others without the given roles and found a sense of identity only within the given roles. Any sense of well being that came outside the scope of roles were discarded and generated stress.
Today, I believe we are going through a phase in the world, where the basic message that is being passed on to us is that “Your well-being is your responsibility alone”. We are going through a phase when we are individuals first and collective later but unlike the clan or the role era, the collective tells us who we should be and how we should be without taking any responsibility for it.
We are told, nobody else can or will take responsibility of your well -being and hence the individual is to maintain and generate her or his sense of well-being irrespective of the context. So, for instance we keep getting message through ads of chocolate, cars or even bottled water, which generates instant sense of well being even when the situation surrounding the protagonist is potentially fearful, disconnected or stressful. We are also given lessons on positive thinking which would generate well-being but often times some of these messages do not take into account the contextual reality.
However, there is an associated message as well, which is while you are solely responsible for your well being, you must not disturb other people’s well being. This effectively means that not only you have to be continuously aware, competent and rational, you must also remain vigilant that you do not become a source of disturbance for others. On the surface of it, this sounds quite alright; if everyone took responsibility of their well-being, this world will be a happy and peaceful place. The problem occurs when remaining vigilant and aware at all points of time itself becomes difficult and when such things are simplified to such an extent that they become absolute, like a dogma.
Before I proceed any further, let me clarify that the kind of individuals and context that I am talking about here are largely urban, middle class, above school level and are mostly into employment or business or are professionals. I must also clarify that as a concept I am a great fan of positivity and positive thinking but I do take offence when they are passed on as an absolute reality without taking their context into account.
Let me state a couple of small stories.
Story number one in which a woman who is feeling quite direction less in her life. She is in her mid thirties, holds a responsible job and is intelligent, caring, perceptive and competent. The sense of confusion and directionlessness comes partly from her past history of stressful relationships and partly from her work context where she is new and is trying to find her feet. Despite her best efforts, she often finds herself on the verge of losing control over her emotions, falls sick quite often without any associated disease and ends up taking decisions that she regrets later on. In this situation, more often than not, she receives advice from her near and dear ones both at work as also from her personal context that she needs to sort herself out and only if she could do that, i.e. go to a therapist, practice yoga, take care of herself, has better routine, all such problems will be taken care of and things will come back to normal. This woman, despite doing all of the above, finds herself at the same crossroad and then starts doubting her sense of worth.
And what does the context do, while she stands on her head trying to “sort herself out?” Her mother who is critical, gets hyper critical about this woman’s problems out of her own anxiety, her boyfriend stays away from her because he was unable to handle her emotional upheavals, her work context demands the same amount of attention, care, concern and competence from her irrespective of her situation and they all pass on this message to her that “please stay away from us, take care of your situation and come back to us as a “functional” person as we are unable to take care of your dysfunctionality. We however, wish you well and are willing to bear the cost of your medical bills, will hire a counselor for your or even help you find a yoga teacher, offer you gymming facility, etc, etc. This in turn increases this woman’s low sense of self worth and pushes her to the brink further and further.
The context in this case, would hardly ever look at reducing some of the stress causing factors that may contribute to her lack of well being, e.g. her mother becoming less critical, her boyfriend’s hyper sensitivity to her emotional outbursts, her work context not demanding her to be always sensible, rational and fair, etc, etc.
Story number two is a multinational organisation where higher and higher responsibility, ownership and performance are demanded from the employees. The employees don’t mind, they see this as a rightful demand on the part of the organisation in return of the money, status, position, learning and value that are being provided to them by the organisation.
So far, so good- Right? Wrong. In a situation like this most of the time the employees would not know what to do with the stress and tension that they carry for a context that is ever changing, highly competitive and very demanding. One can of course argue that this is the way of the world and that people who come for this kind of work have made a choice. However my point here is not about the choice but whether just by making a choice, the responsibility of the generating well being becomes an individual responsibility or is it both? After all, if the context learns to take care of its inhabitants, the context generates its own well being as well. However, most of the time, organisations such as these would term such stresses as symptoms of lack of work life balance problem and would organize training programs to take care of such anomalies without making the slightest difference to the internal environment which is tipping off the balance continuously. Alternately the context usually not question the value frames from where such stressors are originating and whether they are an absolute must for the “development” and “progress” of the context.
Therefore it is not surprising that often who we are and who we should be are defined and dictated by the popular media and even when we hear a heart breaking story of a model taking her own life, it often comes in the garb of how her professional life created this stress and how does one stay away from the stress through individual effort while the context goes away scot free in the name of being a “high stress” industry.
The opposite is also true, i.e. there are individuals and groups who would never look at how they are contributing to the stress of the context and would demand that the context makes all the changes while they retain all their dysfunctional habits and patterns in relation to the context.
Till such time both the individuals and context look at each other as integral part of each other and that this relationship is not just contractual (work context), or societal (family, relationships), but are complimentary to each other and one will not survive without the other, but at the same time one can not subsume the other, this confusion and stress will continue to haunt us.
On a different take, why is a constant state of well being so important? What is wrong with unhappiness, struggle, sadness, confusion, anger, grief and lack of well being? Aren’t some of these great mobilisers for new path, new directions and new action choices? May be this calls for another post, later!
What do you think and feel about your well being?