Well-Being and Beyond
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Well-Being and Beyond

Broadening the Public and Policy Discourse

Edited by Timo J. Hämäläinen and Juliet Michaelson

This book will broaden the public and policy discourse on the importance of well-being by examining psychological, social, environmental, economic, organizational, institutional and political determinants of individual well-being.
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Chapter 5: Understanding and improving the social context of well-being

John F. Helliwell


Most theory and practice aimed at understanding and improving human well-being deals with individuals, and largely ignores their social interactions. Likewise, both theory and practice tend to focus on individual problems and how they can be fixed. This chapter attempts to fill these gaps, first by showing the fundamental importance of the social context, and then by showing how well-being can be improved by changing the focus from repair of damage to building happier lives. Both of these new directions are based on recent theoretical and empirical advances in the study of subjective well-being. Treating people's self-assessments of the quality of their lives as valid measures of well-being exposes the importance of the social context and suggests new ways to design better policies. The chapter starts with demonstrations of the fundamental importance of the social context, building on the unexpectedly great well-being consequences of social and pro-social behaviour. In addition, evidence is advanced to show an evolutionary fitness for social and pro-social behaviours above and beyond those flowing through their direct consequences for subjective well-being. This is followed by discussion of specific measures of the social context, and of the fundamental importance of trust as social glue. Turning then to policy applications, the chapter deals with valuing the social context, building the evidence base for improving the social context, and demonstrating a variety of policy applications.

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