What Does Wellbeing Mean, Exactly?

The term wellbeing seems to be cropping up everywhere.

…As a primary objective of national and local government and their policies.

…As the intention behind culture change programmes – “to improve the wellbeing of all our stakeholders.”

…In the self-help industry, as a key outcome of doing the physical, emotional and spiritual work on oneself.

…In individual teams – to support a better ethos.

But what is it exactly?

When I ask this question of business leaders, I typically get responses like these..

…it’s about having enough money to buy new things,

…it’s the thrill of hitting target and knowing a bonus is on its way,

…a good night out,

…my regular trip to the gym.

…a decent vacation in a hot clime.

I get that. From a world-of-work perspective, we’ve often thought of wellbeing as the by-product of a job well done. Which it is, of course, but this can be problematic.

Having a new car or being on that sandy beach does not guarantee you’ll feel good about it. If your self-talk is preoccupied with a worry or concern, you may not even notice the sound of the waves or the warmth of the sun on your back.

Working hard today to consume future goodies also has a “jam tomorrow” feel to it. It obscures questions such as what about now, what’s stopping us being well today, right here right now?

With questions like these in mind, I wondered whether an additional understanding of wellbeing would be helpful. One that…

…speaks to its role in doing a job well in the first place, less so just its by-product,

…might move us away from the idea that wellbeing is a nice thing to have if only we had time to focus on it,

…encourages those who think it’s just soft and fluffy nonsense, and not very business-y, to think again.

My journey took me to two different ways of thinking about wellbeing.

  1. By its absence

I don’t know about you, but I have a particular knack of noticing wellbeing’s absence. The worrisome frown that never seems to leave a leader’s face. The false, forced smile of the receptionist you meet as you sign in for an important. The team that’s paying lip service to its own dreams and getting bogged down in minutia.

Personally speaking, we know it too. When you’re feeling uptight or anxious, or downright sad and miserable, and are ruminating on something to the point where you can’t see things clearly, wellbeing becomes elusive. And it shows in facial expressions, tone of voice, vocabulary used and overall demeanour.

We may not talk about it often, but, I suggest, we all know via our visceral reactions when wellbeing has gone AWOL.

  1. By definition

A group of researchers at Cardiff Met University * surveyed all the academic literature on wellbeing. They found many descriptions of states of wellbeing but few definitions.

Their intention was to discover an easily recognisable and understood definition. They concluded wellbeing is…

“A balancing or equilibrium point in the mind that arises when the psychological, social and physical resources available to us match the psychological, social and physical challenges confronting us.”

This spoke to me.

Whether in myself or some of the leaders I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve witnessed first-hand what’s possible when in this mental state of equilibrium. For instance…

…hostility and ill will are absent,

…sure, we experience how life endlessly changes – from gain to loss, praise to blame, fame to disrepute, pleasure to pain – but we feel a sense of impartiality about this, rooted in the mind’s immeasurable abundance.

…Self-talk isn’t noisy in this balanced state, you feel open to whatever happens next and curious about what that could be.

…There’s a sense of wonder about what enables the natural qualities you have to take centre stage again whenever they’ve eluded you. Qualities such as calmness, clarity, creativity, and resilience.

…You’re neither happy nor sad, just content in a place of in-betweenness. No matter what’s before you, it can’t faze you for long.

…Whether the road ahead feels challenging or pregnant with opportunity becomes a choice that would otherwise be inaccessible to you if illbeing rather than wellbeing were front of mind.

Do you recognise this understanding of wellbeing in yourself?

The thing is, I’ve come to realise, wellbeing seen in this way is already available to any of us right now.

Sure it ebbs and flows a bit, but once we realise it’s our internal sense-making of the thoughts, feelings and sensations that come to us about external events, circumstance and other people, which shape our moment-to-moment experience, we reclaim more influence over our inner life. Influence that so many of us, me included, had completely forgotten about.

Now, how cool would it be if governments, organisations, and teams put this understanding of wellbeing centre stage in their efforts to help us lead our best lives?

To discover more please visit

* to see the full research paper see here


Roger Martin
Roger Martin
Hi. Ever since I found myself working in a toxic culture, led by someone who was known behind their back as “The Tyrant,” I’ve felt a need to do what I can to help people’s experience of workplaces be more fulfilling than demoralising. I started by changing career: from management accountant to being a leadership coach, mentor, critical friend, sounding board, speech writer, or any other role that would help my clients. Over the last 37 years I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of leaders and see myself as a student of what works and what doesn’t for them. Nowadays I write about this. I focus especially on the role self-talk plays in determining the actions we take and what follows. I look at team talk too, because, quite simply, I’ve seen how progress is made, and sustained when its positive impacts are felt in the conversation we have with ourselves and others. You can keep abreast of what I’m learning and sharing at

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  1. An important topic, Roger, as we are increasingly understanding that higher GDP doesn’t necessarily lead to more wellbeing for the population at large, and even more because too much has been loaded on “happiness” – confusing hedonistic pleasure seeking with contentment.

    If we gain a stable place in the mind from where possibilities and challenges can be faced with some efficacy, perhaps we have arrived as individuals, and with the gratefulness of someone who understands that they got help along the way, we can pay that forward. Then, perhaps, we may also arrive as societies.