The field of psychology has primarily focused on documenting human pathology rather than wellness. In the article Psychological Well-Being in Adult Life, Carol Ryff argues that prioritizing research on dysfunction over positive mental functioning has detrimental effects on the lives of patients and the field at large. Rather than treating well-being as a mere absence of disease, it should be defined on its own terms and its individual characteristics isolated to identify what is missing in the lives of the mentally ill. Furthermore, it would allow psychologists to treat unfulfilled people that are not necessarily troubled by dysfunction. The article has an interesting premise, but numerous issues undermine its validity and relevance.
Ryff laments the breadth of empirical research on positive psychological functioning and outlines the main theories that have provided its basic contours. Developmental psychology presents wellness as a unilinear, goal-oriented evolutionary progression throughout an individual’s life. Clinical psychology has numerous conceptions of individuation and maturity put forward by Maslow, Rogers, Jung, and Allport. Despite largely defining wellness as absence-of-illness, the research on mental health has a few notable exceptions in Jahoda and Birren. While these theoretical frameworks within different psychological fields exist, they have not translated into empirical research due to their lack of measurable definitions and diverse characterizations of wellness.
In order to solve this problem, Ryff offers a definition of wellness that synthesizes different elements of each aforementioned theory. She claims that autonomy, self-acceptance, positive relationships, life purpose, personal growth, and environmental mastery are the central dimensions of well-being. Rather than prioritizing happiness—a mistake Ryff prescribes to a mistaken translation of Aristotle—she views the fulfillment of one’s potential as the highest of human goods. Regardless of this position’s philosophic or theoretic defensibility, Ryff argues that this is a preferable alternative to the current definition of wellness as absence-of-illness.
Ryff then addresses whether the basic dimensions of wellness are variable with age, sex, and culture. Self-reported questionnaires reveal that certain aspects of well-being showed no significant differences with age, although their scientific generalizability is questionable. Women rate themselves higher on positive relationships and personal growth than men. Self-oriented aspects of well-being are self-reported higher in the U.S., while others-oriented dimensions are more highly reported in Korea. Ryff then argues that life experiences and individuals’ interpretation of these experiences are more valuable influences on well-being than sociodemographic factors such as income, education, and age.
While Ryff’s premise that psychological well-being needs a more functional definition than absence-of-illness is intriguing, the rest of the article is too opinion-based to qualify as scientific. Even its preferability to the current model does not confirm its validity. Firstly, the fact that her definition for well-being is an amalgamation of previous theories by famous psychologists is not enough to make it scientifically defensible. None of her definitions are actually quantifiable and researchable beyond self-reporting, which is widely viewed as an unreliable assessment. Although her citations are peer-reviewed academic articles, she does not provide adequate information on the research method and sample size for the studies she conducted to support her thesis.
Secondly, Ryff seemingly disregards the fact that her dimensions of well-being are Western-based, and thus they are not universally applicable. Different cultures value her proposed dimensions of well-being to different degrees. For example, collectivist cultures might prioritize personal growth and autonomy to a lesser degree, but that does not necessarily mean that they are less “well”. Ryff discusses the variability of wellness in different cultural contexts. However, she sidesteps the issue by focusing on how Americans and Koreans perform within her parameters rather than questioning whether her definition of well-being is even relevant to non-Western standards. Therefore, in addition to an unknown methodology, even the basic premise of her research is questionable.
Furthermore, Ryff minimizes the role of sociodemographic factors without realizing that it significantly impacts the quality and variety of life experiences. Ryff highlights the role of experiences such as educational achievements and health problems as influencing well-being. However, sociodemographic data such as ethnicity, income level, and even neighborhood zip code have been shown to reliably predict one’s level of educational attainment and access to healthcare (Daniels, 2020). In general, autonomy, self-acceptance, personal growth, and environmental mastery are probably much easier to achieve for a wealthy, white, heterosexual male than for any other sociodemographic profile. Sociodemographic data should not be overlooked in determining well-being because it significantly impacts the quality of life.
Ryff’s article contains an interesting premise but fails to provide any conclusions relevant for modern psychology. She combines several different psychological theories to create a cohesive definition of wellness, but it is still not quantifiable and thus cannot be used in empirical research beyond unreliable self-reporting. There is no information on the methodology or sample size of her research, and it generally rests on the false assumption that her Western-based definition of well-being is universally applicable. Ryff purposefully undermines sociodemographic factors in favor of life experiences in determining wellness, even though the former inevitably impacts the latter. Ryff’s opinion that psychologists need to pay attention to unhappy individuals who do not suffer from psychological dysfunction may be relevant. However, her ignorance regarding cultural relativism and class consciousness makes this article firmly outdated.
Daniels, N. (2020). How much has your ZIP code determined your opportunities?. The New York Times. Web.
Ryff, C. D. (1995). Psychological well-being in adult life. Current directions in psychological science, 4(4), 99-104.