Wellbeing is not just the Satisfaction of Needs

It may be obvious, or even tautological, that wellbeing is about the satisfaction of needs but it is a useful way of putting it because it begs the question ‘what needs?’. This grounds the notion of wellbeing in something more concrete and leads to more precise definitions. Wellbeing is about getting what you need both in terms of process and outcome.

However, this is not the whole story and, in fact, the notion of wellbeing is not necessarily as simple as it first appears. For example, it is the contention of this blog (Wellbeing and Control) that if needs are not satisfied but a person is nevertheless able to control circumstances such that they can see a way to the needs becoming satisfied, then wellbeing need not suffer. As a corollary of this, if needs are satisfied, then having control will not necessarily impact on wellbeing.

Despite nearly all governments using measures of economic growth as the primary indicator of progress in society, wellbeing is not about gross domestic product (GDP). As far back as 1968 John F Kennedy said ‘gross national product measures everything except that that makes life worthwhile’. In the UK in 2010 (around the time of David Cameron’s launch of the Big Society initiative) it became fashionable to look at alternative measures. However, even now it is still only GDP and the stock-market index that are regularly reported.

YouTube Video, Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index,TED ,August 2010, 17:20 minutes

Also, wellbeing is not necessarily synonymous with having choice. A certain amount of choice may provide the necessary control to enhance wellbeing, but being able to choose in the supermarket from several hundred types of biscuit or soap-powder can be overwhelming and actually impair decision making and control. Sometimes, a person finds complex decisions in the absence of appropriate knowledge and criteria for deciding, a burden and would rather somebody else with training and experience (e.g. a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer or an airline pilot) take control.

Wellbeing is also relative. What provides wellbeing for one person may not for another – it can depend on circumstances. Much of it is to do with comparison – i.e. comparison of your own situation with others or with social norms, or comparison between what you expected and what actually happened. This is why inequality in society can be so divisive.

Debate and discussion about wellbeing no doubt goes a long way back . Unfortunately there are no videos of Aristotle, but modern definitions of wellbeing are plentiful and varied, so here is just a sample.

First is a straightforward description of wellbeing that targets students. The basic message is –‘make sure you get the things that you need’ and these needs span the physical, the social, the financial, community, and exploiting your capabilities:

Youtube Video, What is Well-Being?, Wilde Performance, June 2014, 2:58 minutes

The Wikipedia entry for wellbeing breaks it down into components of cognitive (thinking) and affective (emotional).


“well-being is often equated with the experience of pleasure and the absence of pain over time”

Is happiness the same as wellbeing? Some argue that wellbeing is a broader concept encompassing health and capacity, while happiness is more of a transient emotional state. These methodological issues are considered more later, but for the moment let’s assume that wellbeing and happiness are, at least, highly related.

Some current thinking on what makes us happy and how to create a happier society, including online course material, can be found on the Action for Happiness website. The Dalai Lama is a patron and the initiative arising out of UK government in 2010. See: http://www.actionforhappiness.org

In 2005, Martin Seligman, proponent of positive psychology, proposed that there were three routes to happiness – pleasure, flow or engagement, and meaning.

TED Video, Martin Seligman: The new era of positive psychology, TED, February 2005, 23:42 minutes

Satisfying other people’s needs can enhance your own wellbeing as well as the other person’s.

TED Video, Michael Norton, How to buy happiness, November 2011, 10:55 minutes

Another short and straightforward account of some components to wellbeing comes from the Six Ways to Wellbeing Campaign that was run by Public Health Kent County Council in about 2014. Their recommendations are: Be Active, Keep Learning, Give, Connect with Others, Take Care of the Planet.

At the other end of the spectrum from positive wellbeing is pain, suffering and depressions. Depression may be a normal reaction to specific circumstances (e.g. loss) or it may be deep and longer term (referred to as clinical depression). Many people argue that clinical depression is a disease of modern society and that our approach to it (e.g. through medication) in both the UK and US is misguided.

YouTube Video: Lifestyle and Emotional Well-Being, with Dr. Andrew Weil | Big Think Mentor, Big think, June 2013, 4:19 Minutes

The 2014 Reith lectures identify wellbeing as a central objective of healthcare. They demonstrate how specialisation has contributed to the lack of an integrated approach based on the whole person, and propose greater systemisation to reduce error and incompetence.

BBC Radio 4, The Reith Lectures 2014, The Idea of Wellbeing, Atul Gawande: The Future of Medicine, Episode 4 of 4, December 2014, 42 minutes

Here is another short video that addresses wellbeing from an employment and economic perspective:

YouTube Video, The Work Foundation: Psychological well-being of the UK workforce, The Work Foundation, December 2011, 4:52 minutes

More recently Martin Seligman has updated his account of wellbeing:

YouTube Video, Martin Seligman ‘Flourishing – a new understanding of wellbeing’ at Happiness & Its Causes 2012, Happy & Well, Aug 2012, 30:07 minutes

Another approach to the satisfaction of needs is to reduce the level of your needs. We are all consuming too much and its not making us any happier. Should we, for the sake of the planet, reduce our rates of consumption?

BBC Radio 4, Woman’s Hour, Can Choosing to Live with Less Make You Happier?, January 2015, 58 Minutes

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The predominant pattern that emerges suggests that wellbeing has a number of components, or levels, spanning from physical to spiritual. Maslow had formulated a good understanding of this over 60 years ago. This is as relevant now as it was then in providing a structure to understand needs and the order in which we prioritise them.

YouTube Video, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs | Episode 21, Alanis Business Academy, August 2012, 9:31 minutes

Mind Changers

Maslow’s ideas laid the foundation for a new genre of psychology called ‘Positive Psychology’ which emphasises psychological capabilities as opposed to deficiencies. Research has since endorsed Maslow’s ideas that people have multiple independent motivational systems that develop at different times during childhood.

BBC Radio 4, Mind Changers, Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs, April 2013, 28 Minutes


At the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs is self-actualisation. The next TED video discusses the mental concept of ‘flow’ which equates to perhaps the highest level of wellbeing where all basic needs are satisfied and all attention can be focused on the exercise of mastery (or control) in some activity.

TED Video, Flow, hemmeligheden bag lykke., Feb2004, 18:55 minutes

Updates on Maslow

Research since Maslow’s original 1943 paper endorses many of his ideas but also make some significant revisions to the structure of needs, particularly in relation to:

  • their ultimate evolutionary function

  • their developmental sequencing

  • their cognitive priority as triggered by proximate inputs

Perspectives on Science Article, Renovating the Pyramid of Needs: Contemporary Extensions Built Upon Ancient Foundations, May 2010, 15,000 words

Wellbeing Measurement and Methodology

In 2009 the New Economics Foundation’s (Nef), a UK Think-Tank promoting social, economic and environmental justice, defined wellbeing as :

“Wellbeing is most usefully thought of as the dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going, through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and psychological resources or ‘mental capital’. The 2008 UK Government Foresight Project drew on key thinking commissioned from nef to define wellbeing in similar terms.”

“Because of this dynamic nature, high levels of wellbeing mean that we are more able to respond to difficult circumstances, to innovate and constructively engage with other people and the world around us. As well as representing a highly effective way of bringing about good outcomes in many different areas our lives, there is also a strong case for regarding wellbeing as an ultimate goal of human endeavour.”

Nef also compiled various indices of wellbeing and provided comparison statistics across nations. See its 2011 report ‘Measuring our Progress: The Power of Well-being’


However, it seems that much of Nef’s early work on wellbeing is no longer accessible and the emphasis of government has shifted back to economic indicators of wellbeing. Here is the Office for National Statistics report from 2014:


BBC Radio 4, The Moral Maze: Measuring the Nation’s Happiness, January 2011, 44:00 minutes

For a US view the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discuss wellbeing concepts at:

A good starting-point in relation to methodology and measurement of wellbeing can be found in papers written by Anna Alexandrova (University of Cambridge) at:


There is also evidence that expectations are critical to judgements of happiness and wellbeing:



What emerges from these descriptions of wellbeing is that it has a number of aspects:

  • In a general sense wellbeing is to do with the satisfaction of needs – both the process of satisfaction and the outcome. The needs can be basic survival needs or higher level, more aspirational needs

  • Even if need are not met, having control may be sufficient for wellbeing not to suffer

  • Wellbeing is not the same as having choice (a default assumption made by many economists)

  • Wellbeing is identified with finding meaning, having purpose and personal development.

  • Wellbeing is related to capacities or capabilities. At higher levels of wellbeing you have the capacity to help others and engage effectively in society, for example. You also have more resilience to adversity.

  • Wellbeing is a function of the interaction between an individual and their circumstances. This may be to do with the extent to which circumstances are satisfying need, what capacities the individual has to cope with circumstances, what expectations the individual has about how their circumstances will change, and the capacity they have to effect change in themselves and their circumstances.

  • Wellbeing is a central concept in healthcare.

  • Wellbeing can be enhanced by satisfying the needs of others.

  • Wellbeing is to some extent relative. A lot is to do with comparison (e.g. between yourself and others).

  • Wellbeing is related to expectations – both your own expectations and the expectations of others. If things turn out better than expected wellbeing is enhanced – if worse, wellbeing suffers.

  • On the flip side of wellbeing is pain and suffering, manifesting in anxiety, stress and, if prolonged, depression. Needs are not being met.

  • Sometimes wellbeing is seen in terms of the experience of life and sometimes it is seen in terms of reflecting on the experience of life (this turns out to be an important distinction when it comes to measurement).

  • Experienced wellbeing could be equated by a weighted sum of experienced positive emotions over experienced negative emotions over time.

  • We need to be needed. Having others need us validates and justifies our existence. It helps define our identity and the roles we play in society.

  • We need to need. If all our needs are satisfied then we get bored (and prolonged boredom can lead to depression). When current needs are satisfied we tend to ‘search out’ new needs. There is some optimum level of need to sustain wellbeing.

Jules Evans argues that governments should not define wellbeing but that individuals should find their own definitions through reasoned debate (and the debate should include an ethical component).

You Tube Video, Speed Talk: Jules Evans – Democratising the definitions of wellbeing, March 2012, 8:55 minutes


But what if you have needs that are not being satisfied? Then you need control.

In this blog: – ‘Wellbeing is not just the Satisfaction of Needs’ proposes that a definition of wellbeing in terms of needs, and control over meeting un-met needs, is a useful high level framework for unpacking the meaning of wellbeing.

Next Up: Control enables the satisfaction of un-met needs. If your needs are un-met, and you have no control to meet them, your wellbeing suffers.

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

Posted in Happiness, Mental Health, Need, Needs, Satisfaction, Well-Being, Wellbeing, Wellness Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
One comment on “Wellbeing is not just the Satisfaction of Needs
  1. penny says:

    Really enjoyed Seligman – how giving gives back to the giver in terms of wellbeing. ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’! Also on meaning and engagement being stronger values than mere pleasure when it comes to wellbeing – tho pleasure which accompanies the other 2 like ‘whipped cream’ adds its own value!


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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.