All this talk of Wellbeing – but what does it actually mean?

Wellbeing is everywhere. Well, at least talk of it is. I’ve seen books on happy salads, the zen art of washing your face and even mindfulness for dogs! I remember the days when I had to scour the internet for books on mindfulness and now Waterstones has an entire section on it. This is great for wellbeing nerds like me, I’m not complaining.
All this talk of wellbeing is good – it’s the conversation we should have been having years ago, especially in the cultural sector, and one most of us are eagerly having now. These are exciting times. But what does wellbeing actually mean?

A colleague asked me this very question recently and it made me think others might be wondering it too. So, if you are thinking of developing a health and wellbeing programme in your cultural institution or even if you simply work in a museum or gallery these days, then it would be wise to know an answer.


James Dickson Innes, Bala Lake, c1911
James Dickson Innes, Bala Lake, c1911

What is wellbeing?


Here at Manchester Art Gallery we found a definition many years ago that we like and, more importantly, that we trust. I’m not usually a fan of definitions, they can be limiting and prescriptive but I think this calls for one.

It comes from the very clever people at the New Economics Foundation (NEF). We think these guys are pretty smart and having done a lot of research around this topic they have come up with a clear, robust and highly respected definition of wellbeing. I thought some of you might find it useful too.

So, according to the NEF:

  • A sense of individual vitality
  • To undertake activities that are meaningful and engaging and which make them feel competent and autonomous
  • A stock of inner resources to help them cope when things go wrong and be resilient to change beyond their immediate control

Also important :

  • A sense of relatedness to other people. The degree to which they have supportive relationships and a sense of connection with others.
  • Another way of putting it is a person who has good levels of wellbeing is feeling good and functioning well.

Another way of putting it is a person who has good levels of wellbeing is feeling good and functioning well.

Joy, confidence, resilience and connection. Write that on a post-it and place it somewhere on your desk where you will read it again and again.

Oh and health? That’s an easy one…



Peter Lanyon, Silent Coast, 1957
Peter Lanyon, Silent Coast, 1957

World Health Organisation

Why is it important for cultural organisations to understand what these words mean? It’s really very simple. If you don’t have a good understanding of what wellbeing is then you won’t recognise it when you see it.

If you can’t recognise it then you can’t capture, document or measure it. If you can’t measure it then you can’t report back to your funders that what you’re doing works, and you know, they should give you some more money to keep doing it.

The NEF goes on to say –

People with high levels of wellbeing are more able to:

  • Respond to difficult circumstances
  • Innovate and constructively engage with other people and the world around them
  • Achieve positive emotions, such as happiness
  • Become resilient, creative, empathetic and happy (non-fearful) people

Now that sounds like the kind of world I want to live in.

The future of museums rests very much in how we impact on the nation’s wellbeing. This is why any cultural institution worth its salt should have a good, solid understanding about what the term means. Then, and only then, it can focus on how, through the use of its spaces, collections and learning from others, it can go about creating conditions for it to thrive.

Louise Thompson, Health and Wellbeing Manager
Instagram: @well_mindful_