University News

Collective Well-Being: Looking Beyond Yourself

by Helena Águeda Marujo and Luis Miguel Neto, University of Lisbon, Portugal

This article is the first in a series by well-being researchers around the world, featuring insights from their nation’s work in the well-being field.

Well-being is associated with such a range of positive outcomes (from emotional and physical health to productivity and success) that it is becoming a universal topic of debate and research around the world. Most attention to the topic has focused on individual well-being; that is, on how to help a person learn and develop the strategies to live the best possible life. Learning the tools that enhance well-being is helpful for thriving in life.

However, individual well-being per se might not be sufficient. If we want to contribute to the betterment of our endangered world, a more collective approach to well-being is best. It can be dangerous to develop positive individual dimensions of well-being without also considering the effects they have on others and the common good. Imagine someone who is so devoted to feeling good and promoting his or her positive emotions that he or she is constantly buying new material goods. He or she is embracing a materialistic outlook, which is actually associated with lower individual levels of well-being and depletes scarce earth resources.

It’s fine to develop one’s positive qualities and a pleasant style of life, but if we are not also contributing to the benefit of others, society, and the planet, pursuing individual well-being alone is insufficient. Again, imagine someone engaged in a beautiful hedonic, zen-type way of living. That might include meditating daily, deepening her or his vitality, and developing positive emotions. Yet if that person is so deeply concentrated in self-development and the inner world that he or she is disconnected from important social issues such as the climate crisis, inequalities among people, or violence against vulnerable people, is that person truly thriving? What good it is to learn how to be happy for myself, if I do not also help my friends and neighbors to be happy? What good is it to find my one inner peace, if I treat others in disrespectful ways? Does it make sense to learn how to be happy if I do not have a healthy planet on which to live?

For these reasons, the positive psychology team at the School of Social and Political Sciences (ISCSP) at Lisbon University in Portugal have been addressing well-being from a collectivist perspective. The concept of felicitas publica – a Latin expression indicating the virtuousness of a person or system, and the generativity of civic virtues – has guided a set of community interventions designed to promote ways to contribute to the well-being of all. Teachers, students, staff, and everyone from outside the school motivated and interested in the topics (e.g. community leaders, members of non-governmental organizations dedicated to social transformation, the ones who want to contribute to the betterment of the world and already know that the school has a unit mission on well-being with open and free programs) meet and debate about generosity, reciprocity, positive peace, social justice, inequalities, global citizenship and civic participation. We get together to learn and practice how to cooperate more effectively, communicate in non-violent ways, and live in a sustainable way. We bring inspirational people to campus such as Calixto Suarez, the Director of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Program in Colombia, to discuss different cultures, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or how to achieve a better quality of life for all. Working to increase public happiness is a way to bring our virtues to civic engagement and the collective life. This approach to well-being is based in an eudaimoic perspective, which is the type of happiness that results from living a virtuous and meaningful life in the pursuit of moral excellence. Additionally, we make efforts to assure that every well-being initiative on campus contributes to the common good and dignifies relationships among all stakeholders in campus and the community around it, adding to social harmony and social justice. For this reason, we advocate a “positive community” approach to well-being that endorses conversations among different people: those who have a high social status and those who don’t; those who have a voice and those who don’t; those with power and the ones who deserve to be empowered. We therefore try to bring together people from different groups based on differences in age, gender, cultural and social group of origin, and functions and roles on campus to increase the potential for meaningful change.

One of the strongest predictors of well-being is having good relationships with other people. Positive social connectedness generates an affirmative feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Hence, if we want to enhance well-being, we should promote our personal well-being while also magnifying the well-being of the community. For this reason, gathering people to discuss quality of life, peace, happiness, sustainability, new economic models, service leadership, or related topics can enhance personal well-being, while also improving felicitas publica: “common good” well-being. Human flourishing means the fulfillment of the true and best nature of humankind, and this nature should be of true community.

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Helena Águeda Marujo is Coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability; Teacher at School of Social and Political Sciences; Researcher – Centre for Administration and Public Policies; Coordinator-Unit Mission on Wellbeing; University of Lisbon.

Luis Miguel Neto is Professor at School of Social and Political Sciences; Researcher-Centre for Administration and Public Policies; Scientific Coordinator-Executive Master on Applied Positive Psychology; University of Lisbon.