Chapter 3: Well-being and its cultural contexts

Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.

UNESCO, 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity

Key messages

By adopting Health 2020, Member States mandated the WHO Regional Office for Europe to measure and report on the well-being of the European population in a holistic manner. 

Well-being is a unifying concept that is relevant to many government sectors. Engaging with well-being provides an important opportunity to take a whole-of-government approach to improving the health of the European population.

A growing body of evidence shows that: 

  • well-being can be reliably measured at the local and national levels; 
  • this shows something not captured by other metrics; and
  • designing policies that take account of well-being can improve the delivery of health-related programmes, services and benefits.

Well-being is experienced at the subjective, individual level; it can also be described objectively through several indicators at the population level, such as education, income and housing. Engaging with the full complexity of subjective well-being demands a multidisciplinary, integrated health-research approach. This will require a more sustained use of different types of qualitative evidence to enhance the quantitative data available from wellbeing surveys.

Comparing subjective well-being data between groups from very different cultural contexts remains a challenge. Since cultural contexts strongly influence well-being, their importance to wellbeing and health more generally must be investigated more systematically. 

A more participatory approach grounded in the local voices of communities should be adopted to communicate information about well-being. Top-down reporting frameworks are likely to miss out on the rich diversity of cultural contexts within which health and well-being are situated. 

In January 2015 WHO launched a review of the cultural contexts of health (CCH), which seeks to synthesize the evidence about the impact of culture on well-being and on health more broadly. One of its longer-term objectives is to create a richer set of tools and methodologies for measuring and reporting on well-being.