Our families, and the lifetimes that comprise them, provide a practical framework for both understanding and fostering well-being across the lifespan. This may be helpful during the holiday season, where we may interact with family or have a chance to contemplate our family situation. How do we contribute to the overall well-being of our family?; and how does our family (or its specific members) help us? Let’s use a single image to explain a complex situation.
Imagine well-being as a single thread or string that stretches from its beginning at birth and our first years of life toward its end and our last years of life. In general, greater well-being and vitality is conveyed when the string is stretched taut (not too tight and not too loose). Lower levels of well-being are shown when the string sags or becomes so limp that it can’t be of any use. Also, if the string becomes too tight it could break during periods of challenge and stress.
Working with this image, also consider that when our string is secure we can use it to hang and share positive memories from the different stages of life — like colored garments along a clothesline. In general, it is at the two ends of the string (birth and old age) where we need the most support and in the middle years where we tend to experience the most stress, where our “string” may get pulled in different directions.
With this image in mind we can both pose and answer the question: What helps to keep our string at that optimal level of tension? How can we maintain well-being across the lifespan?
DEFINE WELL-BEING. But first let’s define well-being. Actually, there is quite a range of definitions we can apply, so here are some to help us get started:
- objectively, we have a high quality of life and function well at work and at home (e.g., lack of illness, adequate income, meeting milestones in our physical and psychological development)
- subjectively, we cognitively evaluate that life is satisfying and has purpose and meaning, and emotionally we feel vitality, zest, pleasure and happiness
- functionally, we are making progress toward our goals, feeling connected to nature, feel supported by others, can recover from set-backs and failures, negotiate life challenges (e.g., school, career, marriage, aging).
WELL-BEING MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS ACROSS THE LIFE-SPAN. These different meanings carry different weights depending on our family member’s stage in life. Indeed, paying careful attention to these changes–being mindful about them–may be the basis for well-being. (Check out a recent interview with Dr. Ellen Langer about such mindfulness). For babies or toddlers, parents pay careful attention to their children to help them function well and meet certain milestones. School-age children need to feel guided, supported and to make progress during the many challenges of growth. Financial and career well-being becomes more important in our middle years, requiring different strategies at different times. And cultivating or renewing a sense of purpose and meaning becomes more important as we move into retirement and our golden years.
LIFE EVENTS. One review of 188 publications (over 65,000 people) looked at the relationship between well-being and life events. The data suggest that for most events where there may be a decline in well-being (divorce, bereavement, unemployment, and retirement) there is typically a positive adaptation and return to previous states of well-being. One possibility is that, following such adverse events, we have more time with family and others who play a positive role in helping us adapt. Indeed, social support from various sources (family as well as others) is one of the best predictors of living longer and positive family communications are associated with better functioning and recovery from chronic illness.
HOW TO SUPPORT AND MAINTAIN WELL-BEING. So how do these various ideas come together and help us with our image of the single string? The answer may lie in being mindful about when it is your turn — in your role during the life-span — to hold up the string or to keep it from getting too tight or too lax. The answer may also lie in seeing that your string is part of a greater weaving of which you are part (at home, with family, at work, in your community and in other groups you belong to).
A recently published six-volume study of well-being uses a life-span framework of mental well-being from the United Kingdom. An expandable image of this very detailed framework (shown below) can be accessed here. The six volumes offer dozens of research-based insights on how to enhance well-being and a quick summary of some guiding questions are listed below. To keep it simple, think about the key phases of life. Then recognize how you, as a member of your own family, have a role to play in supporting other members during these key phases. In other words, where do you fit in? Where do you need support? If the family is not providing such, what are your alternatives? For each area below, consider who in your family comes to mind that you can help AND also whether you need someone to help with your well-being.
- Child-birth and early childhood. What can you do to support self-care in the pregnant mother? How can you help (emotionally as well as practically) new parents prepare for a new child? What things in the home environment can be introduced to create positive early bonding experiences?
- School-age children. How can you promote an attitude toward learning that is positive and an ongoing life-long joy? How can you provide support (not criticism) when early childhood problems and challenges arise? How can you ensure that children are getting the right nutritional needs met? What about fostering positive contributions to the community, role modeling civic responsibility, and helping to support schools in their quest to have “whole school” well-being (see examples here and here)?
- Teens and Emerging Adults. What communications and skills can you give to help teens resist peer pressures toward negative behaviors? How can you promote self-reliance and self-control? What guidance and praise can you offer during key milestones: first romance, first job, school sports or other team/club experiences?
- Adulthood. How can you promote access to diverse sources of support to help with family and career? What skills can you develop for handling financial, work and career stress? What skills can you develop for supporting intimacy, passion, and commitment in marriage or close relationship? How can you cultivate positive healthy life-style behaviors and avoid tobacco, alcohol, drugs? How can you maintain a positive mental outlook?
- Transitioning. What plans have you had in place to support your transition to retirement? Is your mental and physical ability such that you don’t have to retire or could re-start a new type of hobby, career, or mentorship? What does your family need from you that can help you?
- Older Age. What is your attitude toward the loss of physical and cognitive function? Are you willing to receive help and support? Do you realize that you can still have objective, subjective and functional well-being even as you approach the physical limitations associated with old age?