Outspoken advocate for wellbeing

Jon Sutton reports from a keynote by Professor Carol Ryff at BPS Conference 2021.

The plenary keynote closing day one was from Professor Carol Ryff (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Again there was a Covid tinge to her question, ‘Is wellbeing beyond the reach of many in our contemporary societies?’ According to her six-factor model of psychological well-being, key to achieving Aristotle’s ‘activity of the soul in accord with virtue’, achieving ‘eudamonia’ or ‘the best that is within us’, is autonomy (marching to one’s own drummer), environmental mastery (managing your external world), personal growth (making the most of your talents and capacities), positive relations with others (taking care of your social ties), and purpose (finding meaning and direction in your life). Her assessment instruments have been translated worldwide and fed into thousands of publications, including intervention studies. 

Why so much interest? ‘These are intellectually vital ideas and ideals’, Ryff said, ‘reaching for the essential meanings of what constitutes the best within us. It’s scientifically relevant and versatile, and embraces integrative science.’ That includes genetic studies, and ‘wellbeing therapy’ rolled out across the lifespan. But recent years have seen obstacles to wellbeing – ever-widening inequality, a great recession, Covid-19. ‘These are intersecting catastrophes,’ Ryff said, pointing us to Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders on ‘how the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust’. Ryff pointed to ‘monopsony power’ – how corporations suppress wages below an efficient or perfectly competitive level of compensation – as a ‘behavioural enactment of corporate greed’. Despite gains in educational attainment over time, post-recession samples have lower incomes, wellbeing and health, and Covid has only ‘exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities’. ‘We need to rethink practice and interventions,’ Ryff argued. ‘How do we help people facing structural problems? How do we have a presence in public policy?’

Ryff also suggested that the arts can foster insight and compassion about injustice and inequality, pointing to sources ranging from Dickens ‘Tale of Two Cities’ to modern films such as Parasite and Nomadland

With the audience questions that followed, it was interesting to hear Ryff addressing a recurring theme from our own pages in candid fashion. ‘I believe value free science is a joke, is ridiculous,’ she said. ‘Science that has no value foundation is deeply problematic. I encourage all I mentor to identify questions in line with their values.’ We’re only going to have an impact at the highest levels of policy, Ryff added, ‘if we’re outspoken advocates’. That can take ‘a fair amount of courage’, she admitted. ‘People were discouraging me from doing this research. The National Institute of Mental Health said “we don’t fund research on wellbeing”. I told them “Then you should be the National Institute of Mental Illness”.’

-       Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July. 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber