What exactly is well-being?

I have spent the last decade figuring out how to not make everything about me. I have realised that my actions have consequences, and I can implement boundaries. I’m productive, I find meaning in things, I laugh, and I have a strong sense of community. However, I rarely exercise, and my diet is on the poorer side of good. I do not meditate, my sleep schedule resembles that of a teenager, and I don’t know how to do breathwork. I am embarrassed to admit this and feel compelled to let you know I am ‘working on these things’.

So, while I lack ‘well-being’, I do not consider myself unwell, which makes me wonder: what exactly do we mean by well-being? Are we referring to a feeling of purpose – which I have – or a feeling of being in control of oneself – which I lack?

What does well-being mean?
Well-being is generally understood to be a state of being healthy, happy and comfortable. It is one of those one-size-doesn’t-fit-all terms, but its most popular definition is ‘how people feel, how they function on a personal and social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole’. While that definition is poignantly personal, when one asks for ‘well-being tips’, they will usually find the same list: exercise, eat well, sleep, practice meditation, socialise, set realistic goals, seek professional help, practice gratitude, engage in something creative, limit screen time, stay organised and embrace self-care.

So, imagine someone is struggling with a ‘mental well-being’ issue like burnout or anxiety. To combat their exhaustion, they complete each of these well-being tips daily. It’s a long list, so it requires a lot of effort, but they manage. Inevitably, they’ll start to feel better insofar as they’ll have more energy and – crucially – feel in control of themselves. The burnout or anxiety induced a feeling of powerlessness over oneself, and now, in sticking to these well-being practices, they are working to counteract that feeling.

So, is feeling in control of ourselves a marker of well-being? The more out of control we feel, the more fear and panic we tend to feel. Anyone who’s struggled with substance abuse or panic attacks can vouch for that, and most people will only ever go to therapy when they feel like they are losing control of themselves. Hence, in some ways, well-being practices help us feel in control, which has an undeniable soothing effect.

A psychoanalytic perspective
However, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic thought and one of the fathers of the field of psychology, argued that human beings are divided creatures, caught between a conscious and unconscious self. While we like to think of that unconscious as hidden in the basement of our brain, it is not quite the case. Instead, it lives and breathes as much as the part of ourselves that we know – coming out in our slips of the tongue, our symptoms, and those mistakes we keep seeming to make. In other words, it shows itself, seeks attention, and because this part of ourselves feels so unknown to us, we feel very out of control when it shows up. Typically, it shows itself in those actions, thoughts, behaviours and moments we would rather not incorporate into our identity, which only fuels the feeling of being unwell.

Furthermore, well-being practices are premised on an idea of ‘integration’ and ‘wholeness.’ However, Jacques Lacan, a French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst following Freud, argued that, by virtue of being a divided subject, the very idea of achieving a ‘feeling of wholeness’ is a fantasy. Specifically, for Lacan, the human comes into being when they identify with their reflection in the mirror. Prior to this, the baby experienced itself as fragmented and boundary-less. In seeing itself for the first time, the baby sees a whole, unified and separate image. We will invest profound amounts of energy into that image, and it will become both us and not us at the same time (e.g., think of how you can only ever see yourself in reverse). Thus, that idea of wholeness that we are striving for is an external fantasy born of our first-ever experience of seeing ourselves.

So, in this sense, feeling ‘un-well’ because I do not eat right or sleep well could be seen as feeling as though I do not measure up to my mirror-image; I am not a whole and unified being because I do things I do not like. However, if Freud and Lacan are right, and if feeling as though one is a contradiction is part and parcel of this human experience, why do we consider ‘well-being’ to be the ability to act in accordance with an image of ourselves? I feel as though that has very little to do with actual being.

Written by Molly Fitz