Towards a culture of wellbeing: what does it mean and how do we all get there?

By Abbie Minter, Deputy Director, Australian Global Health Alliance.

In March, the Australian Global Health Alliance hosted a webinar, “Towards a culture of wellbeing: what does it mean and how do we all get there”?  The past few years has taken its toll on us all, stress-tested our global health community and importantly, exacerbated many of the equity challenges facing already marginalised populations. At the same time, while our community is increasingly aware of the new evidence being generated towards wellbeing – such as on lifestyle risks, nutritional and environmental stressors – we still remain largely disconnected from the many advances occurring globally in policy and in practice to advance wellbeing at the societal level. The session was an opportunity to reflect on all this and to learn what we can do at the individual and whole-of-society level to foster an environment that promotes wellbeing.

We were privileged to be joined by expert panellists, Prof Grant Blashki (Lead Clinical Advisor, Beyond Blue), Prof Vivian Lin (Executive Associate Dean of LKS Faculty of Medicine at University Hong

Kong), Dr Melody Ding (Associate Professor, Sydney School of Public Health), and Prof Colin Sindall (Adjunct Associate Professor, Monash Sustainable Development Institute).

Wellbeing, our panellists advised, is a relatively new area of study and hasn’t been treated with the same weight as other areas of health. Whilst there is no one universally accepted definition, Dr Blashki proposed that wellbeing is much more than just being in a state of happiness, comfort and good health, but being able to flourish.

Wellbeing is influenced by a hotpot of factors, from behavioural (such as diet and physical activity), environmental (such as the communities you live in), socio-demographic (such as migration background and ethnicity), and social (such as our connections to other human beings). It’s a subjective experience, and each of our individual wellbeing recipes will look a little different. But those who already experience challenges of equity, such as pre-existing health conditions, marginalisation or discrimination within society or poor mental health face a greater battle to achieve a good wellbeing balance.

The situation has only been exacerbated for many throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Prolonged lockdowns restricted how we could exercise, how we could access medical services, and perhaps most crucially, how and when we could connect with others.

There is an emerging field of research around loneliness as a wider, whole-of-public health issue. We are just now starting to truly explore and understand the health consequences that chronic, prolonged loneliness can have on individuals and societies, and how prevalently this occurs across the world. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), Dr Ding shared that it was not a universal experience. In Northern European countries, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the problem barely exists. Yet in countries like the US, South East Europe, and indeed Australia, the issue is far more widespread.

The good news is that change is afoot, and the movement to improve wellbeing through better public policy is gathering pace. Prof Lin shared that in December 2021, at the 10th Global Conference on Health Promotion, the Geneva Charter for Well-being was agreed to, underlining “the urgency of creating sustainable ‘well-being societies’, committed to achieving equitable health now and for future generations without breaching ecological limits”.

Individual countries are also developing and adopting wellbeing frameworks to guide future decision making and sustainable development, Prof Sindall explained. A great example is Wales’ The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015), a holistic legislation that ensures governing bodies keep a set of seven wellbeing goals – focused on prosperity, resilience, equality, health, cohesive communities, vibrant culture and global responsibility – front and centre in their policy making.

As movements like the above become more widespread, it’s important that the voices of those who are most affected are given a platform to shape policy outcomes. The HIV community have many experiences to share, and lessons we can learn from. We look forward to seeing them front and centre in the conversation.