A person’s well-being encompasses many facets of physical and psychological health. Are you generally content with your job, your personal life, and your living situation? How’s your health? Do you experience frequent pain and illness, or are you relatively … well?
Considering that many people, especially in developed, industrialized nations, spend the bulk of their day-to-day lives working, and the rest of their time either alone or engaged in family and social activities, researchers recently decided to explore how these two aspects of life impact our sense of well-being (Stansfeld, Shipley, Head, Fuhrer, and Kivimaki, 2013).
To do this, they used data from 5,182 civil servants in the United Kingdom who filled out a social support and work characteristics questionnaire as part of the Whitehall II study; they then applied the “Affect Balance Scale” to the participants’ responses to determine their subjective well-being. Factors like on-the-job demands, control over workflow, managerial support, and access to social networks were also taken into consideration.
Not surprisingly, the more people were receiving emotional support outside of their work life, the higher their levels of subjective well-being. Also, a high level of control over job responsibilities, as well as a reasonable level of demand, increased a person’s likelihood of experiencing a satisfying degree of well-being.
Just How Important Is Peer Support?
Among the specific factors that were found to largely influence well-being at work were social support on the job and clarity and consistency of communication from supervisors regarding job expectations. The elements of personal life found to be of greatest impact were the level of “confiding/emotional” support in an individual’s close relationships, as well as the number of family members, friends, and others with whom that person was in contact. Perceived levels of well-being were also found to be higher in men than in women, and lower in middle age as compared with younger people.
Such findings aren’t exactly breaking news, considering that theories have long been established by psychologists such as Freud and Erikson that work and personal relationships significantly impact a person’s well-being. But it is important for researchers to provide evidence of this in order to influence public policy on employment and overall health. Psychological distress and mental health conditions have been found to develop as a result of poor work conditions and lack of social support, so the more political leaders and employers take this into consideration when establishing policies and procedures, the more people will experience an improved sense of well-being (Stansfeld et al., 2013).
Of course, there is also the responsibility on the part of the individual to cultivate a personal life that is conducive to a solid sense of well-being. From self-help books and programs to outreach centers and support groups, there are many resources available in most communities to receive aide in the pursuit of happiness, so to speak. Social activities, creative outlets, and volunteering are just a few of the less formal and structured options available to people.
And yet, many still find difficulty in taking advantage of these and other means of social engagement. There are likely many reasons for this—economic status, living situations, and family responsibilities, to name a few—but there is one in particular that inspired recent research at the University of Missouri (MU): social anxiety.
Social Anxiety: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Crowded rooms and busy streets bustling with people coming and going, talking and laughing, smiling and frowning, and housing their various ups and downs and highs and lows inside of them—some individuals feel invigorated and energized when submerged in such settings. Others simply do not. Rather, they feel nervous, uneasy, uncomfortable, overstimulated, drained, and bombarded when immersed in large groups of people. In extreme cases, this may involve panic attacks and debilitating phobias.
A recent study led by Professor Gustavo Carlo, a researcher who teaches in MU’s College of Human Environmental Sciences, led to an interesting genetic discovery: The serotonin system gene, which has been found to influence prosocial behaviors like volunteering and helping others, also appears to be responsible for predisposing people to social anxiety (Chew, 2013).
The overriding message of the MU News report on the study is that those who experience social anxiety are at a disadvantage, as they are less likely to engage in activities and behaviors that are believed to improve overall health and well-being. As Carlo said in the report, “Social people are more likely to be healthier, excel academically, experience career success, and develop deeper interpersonal relationships that may help alleviate stress” (Chew, 2013).
In order to combat the potential limitations imposed by social anxiety, Carlo suggested, “helping nervous individuals cope with their social anxiety through targeted efforts, such as encouragement, support, counseling, and medication” may help nurture their ability to participate in prosocial activities (Chew, 2013).
Solitude and Creativity
While most people recognize volunteering and helping others as positive activities, there is value and well-being in solitary work, as well. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, points out in a TED Talk filmed in February 2012, less socially inclined people find just as much satisfaction in solo, creative endeavors as more extroverted types experience in group settings. (Watch the video below!) Introverted individuals are also likely to be some of the most innovative, imaginative people, known for writing life-changing books or paving the way for groundbreaking shifts in societal perspectives with their theories and ideas.
To support this notion, Cain mentions Charles Darwin, who “took long walks alone in the woods and emphatically turned down dinner party invitations,” and Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, who “dreamed up many of his amazing creations in a lonely bell tower office that he had in the back of his house in La Jolla, California,” and “was actually afraid to meet the young children who read his books for fear that they were expecting him to be this kind of jolly, Santa Clause-like figure, and would be disappointed with his more reserved persona” (Cain, 2012).
Keeping these ideas in mind, it would appear that whatever route a person chooses to take in improving his or her overall well-being, the best method is to be true to oneself. If going out and mingling with people appeals to someone, then he or she should find time to make that happen. If a person feels more inclined to write, research, daydream, and create than to be out and about interacting with others, it may be best to follow this inner urging; it is likely that well-being will improve naturally by honoring this desire.
- Cain, S. (2012, February). The power of introverts. TED Talk . Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html
- Chew, J. (2013, October 14). Individuals genetically predisposed to anxiousness may be less likely to volunteer and help others. MU News Bureau. Retrieved from http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2013/1014-individuals-genetically-predisposed-to-anxiousness-may-be-less-likely-to-volunteer-and-help-others/
- Stansfeld, S. A., Shipley, M. J., Head, J., Fuhrer, R., Kivimaki, M. (2013, November 19). Work characteristics and personal social support as determinants of subjective well-being. PLOS One. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0081115;jsessionid=1AB0F0D35C074DE4E109A56872F4B78F
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