Why and How of Understanding ‘Subjective’ Well-being: Exploratory work by the WeD group in four developing countries.

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The paper reviews participatory studies carried out in developing countries during the past decade and contrasts their findings with qualitative data from the initial phase of the Wellbeing in Developing Countries ESRC Research Group’s exploration of quality of life. This used primarily qualitative methods to establish the categories and components of subjective quality of life or wellbeing in four developing countries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Thailand. The comparison supports the proposition that a more open-ended approach provides insight into how people understand, pursue, and preserve their wellbeing. Subjective quality of life was not simply equated with happiness, but related to the aspects of life people regarded as important. For example, observing religion was part of both living well and being a model person, but not a source of happy memories, which suggests that treating happiness as the ‘universal goal’ is not sufficient to capture people’s motivations. People’s values and aspirations were ascertained via three questions: ‘When were you happiest?’ ‘What are the characteristics of a woman or man who lives well?’ ‘Who are the people you most admire/ respect or the best/ model persons of this community?’ The answers revealed many commonalities across sites and countries; for example, having good relationships with immediate and natal family was universally important (‘relatedness’). It also revealed cultural differences; for example, ‘not being materialistic’ was only characteristic of a ‘model’ person in Northeast Thailand, possibly because of its link to the Buddhist ideal of the ‘world renouncer’. Framing the enquiry in terms of wellbeing rather than poverty enables researchers to explore what poor people have and are able to do, rather than focusing on their deficits, which should produce more credible and respectful representations of people’s lives to inform development policy and practice. The desired outcome is development that creates the conditions for people to experience wellbeing, rather than undermining their existing strategies.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherWell-being in Developing Countries ESRC Research Group
Publication statusPublished - 2006

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