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Explorations on the Meaning of Well-Being

September 13, 2019 by John Andrew Williams

In 1989 University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist Carol Ryff undertook the previously unattempted theoretical challenge of defining the dimensions of psychological well-being. Her resulting publication, “Happiness Is Everything, Or Is It? Explorations on the Meaning of Psychological Well-Being”, first advances the theory of well-being itself, then analyzes the results of a real world study designed to test it. 


The Six Dimensions of Well-Being – Each of these elements of well-being, from self-acceptance to autonomy, naturally show up over the course of a coach-client relationship. Indeed, even the nature of coaching emphasises autonomy and environmental mastery in helping clients align action steps with core values and create processes that yield meaningful learning and results. 

  • Self-acceptance: Self-accepting individuals maintain a positive perspective toward their present and past selves, acknowledging and accepting both their positive and negative personality traits. People who lack self-acceptance generally feel disappointed or dissatisfied with themselves, shameful about their negative personality traits, negative about their pasts, and wish they were different.
  • Positive relations with others: People exemplify this dimension when they have trusting, intimate relationships with others that fulfill them, are empathetic and concerned about others’ well-being, and make personal compromises to nurture external relationships. People who lack positive relations with others find it challenging to open themselves to intimacy and often feel frustrated in personal relationships.
  • Autonomy: Autonomous people feel independent and confident in their personal perspectives and choices. They easily resist pressures in society for group thinking and action and evaluate their performance in life by personal standards and progress. Individuals that lack autonomy are often overwhelmed by anxiety about the evaluations of others, rely on others’ perspectives to inform personal decisions, and easily conform to group-think pressures. 
  • Environmental mastery: People with environmental mastery are able to juggle the complex details of work and home logistics with order and is able to integrate new, positive opportunities into their existing routines. People who lack this dimension struggle to maintain order in life, much less integrate new opportunities, and feel little control over external pressures and processes. 
  • Purpose in life: People with life purpose have clear life goals and actionable objectives that embody a sense of direction. They believe in their life’s meaning and can articulate it clearly in the context of their past, present, and future. People who lack life purpose do not feel a sense of life’s meaning and do not understand how their past life impacts the present and future. They are unable to maintain goals or a sense of future direction.
  • Personal growth: People who feel personal growth have a sense of continued learning and advancement of self and external knowledge. They feel this as a process of realizing their true potential that is continually evolving over time indefinitely. They welcome new experiences and can incorporate changes into their behaviors and perspectives as they cultivate knowledge and purpose. People who lack a sense of personal growth often feel stagnated in development and bored with life. They are uninterested in or incapable of developing new behaviors and perspectives. 


  1. Carol Ryff’s six factors of well-being put life coaching on solid footing to explore areas of a client’s life through curiosity and powerful questions that empower clients to design meaningful steps for learning. The shift away from measuring happiness as the absence of pain, points practitioners toward the perspective that some pain is part of the process of living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Finding one’s purpose in life and being able to do your life’s work adds a depth and richness to one’s experience that far outpaces temporary setbacks. The Coaching to Flourish Model uses such a framework of helping clients gain additional clarity on their life’s work and gather the knowledge and resources necessary to achieving a fulfilling and effective life. 
  2. Ryff’s 1989 advancement of theory in practice is acknowledged as a landmark work in positive psychology research and kicked off decades of positive psychology research. Ryan and Deci (2001), in “On happiness and human potentials: a review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being”, cite Ryff (1989) as foundational in the field of eudaimonic well-being research, as opposed to hedonic well-being research. Her worked marked a shift in approach from the hedonic pursuit as a proxy of happiness, measured by pain avoidance and pleasure attainment, to a model of well-being, which emphasized meaning and fulfillment. The eudaimonic well-being research that Ryff kick-started uses self-realization, fulfillment, and meaning to understand optimal human functioning. The Greek term “eudaimonia” is defined as “the feelings accompanying behavior in the direction of, and consistent with, one’s true potential.” (Waterman 1984). “Daimon” is the magnificence a person strives towards and provides directionality and meaning to life. 
  3. In the decades between Ryff’s 1989 publication and today, the model of eudaimonic psychological well-being has flourished in the positive psychology literature. Much of this research has focused on how the model relates to both mental and physical health, and interventions that promote well-being. In 2014, Ryff published a review of the model’s development over time, titled “Psychological Well-Being Revisited: Advances in Science and Practice” This article revisits her landmark 1989 study and synthesizes the theoretical and experimental findings of subsequent research. Research on topics of well-being has proliferated in diverse disciplinary fields, including aging and development, personality traits, family experiences, work and social engagements, health and biological research, and clinical mental health studies. Well-being can be a precursor to healthy functioning in these categories.  As Ryff puts it: “__Together, these topics illustrate flourishing interest across diverse scientific disciplines in understanding adults as striving, meaning-making, proactive organisms who are actively negotiating the challenges of life. A take-home message is that increasing evidence supports the health protective features of psychological well-being in reducing risk for disease and promoting length of life. A recurrent and increasingly important theme is resilience – the capacity to maintain or regain well-being in the face of adversity.” (Ryff 2014, abstract). 


  1. Ryff argued that the field of psychology desperately needed a theory describing a thriving human being. She recognized that the literature on well-being up to the 1980s had focused on happiness, and that nobody had undertaken a deeper look at the essential features of well-being.
  2. To fill this gap, she looked for all research related to life-fulfillment in clinical psychology, lifespan development, and mental health (including Maslow, Frankl, Jung, Rogers, Buhler, Erikson, Neugarten, and Jahoda). She brought all of this research together and revealed several significant points of convergence across these broad disciplines. 
  3. Using those points of convergence, she proposed an integrated theory of psychological well-being with six key dimensions: 1) self-acceptance, 2) positive relations with others, 3) autonomy, 4) environmental mastery, 5) purpose in life, and 6) personal growth. These theoretical constructs, she argues, are the precursors to different aspects of positive human functioning. Figure 1. below visualizes Ryff’s unification of these theories to generate the six dimensions of well-being (Ryff 2014).
  4. Ryff then conducted a study to test whether her proposed theory of psychological well-being held up with real people. She surveyed 321 men and women from three age groups (young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults) who self-selected as financially stable, well-educated, and healthy. Her survey assessment tool charted the magnitude of each respondent’s correlation with high levels of each of the six dimensions of well-being. 
  5. Ryff’s results showed some variations among dimensions correlated with age classes. For example, young adults’ sense of personal growth was the highest scoring of all the dimensions, and steadily declined as people aged. In contrast, purpose in life increased from young adults to middle-aged adults, before declining steeply in older adults. Autonomy was lowest in young adults, peaked in middle-aged adults, and slightly lowered in older adults. 
  6. Concluding findings – correlation between the data and 6 dimensions. 


Ryff, C.D. 1989. Happiness is Everything, or Is It? Explorations on the Meaning of Psychological Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57(6): pp. 1069 – 1081. 

Ryff, C.D. 2014. Psychological Well-Being Revisited: Advances in Science and Practice. Psychother Psychosom 83(1): pp. 10 – 28.

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