October 14, 2020
As families have evolved across generations, so have our understandings and conversations on the well-being of individual family members, as well as the family unit as a whole. While discussion on both individual and family well-being are not new, as noted by Susan L. T. McGregor, Professor Emerita at Mount Saint Vincent University, there has been no overall consensus on how they differ, and as a result are often conflated or combined.
In Conceptualizing Family Well-being,1 McGregor argues that comprehensive definitions matter, as family well-being is a concept regularly used in – and has an impact on – research, policy, education and practice despite an overall lack of conceptual clarity. While they are interrelated in many ways, she asserts that individual and family well-being are distinct concepts that warrant unique frameworks and measurement.
McGregor’s monograph reviews some of the literature from the past three decades (1993–2019) on family and group well-being, identifying a significant degree of shared themes and components. With roots in diverse fields – including early childhood education, child and family studies, family and social policy, family and parent-based organizations, and psychological studies – these conceptualizations offer differing perspectives while nonetheless sharing overlaps. Recurring broad themes included stability, security and safety; agency and autonomy; and collective approaches to well-being. Taken together, they highlight the multifaceted and complex nature of well-being.
McGregor’s proposed conceptualization of family well-being
McGregor’s contributes to the ongoing discussion and reconceptualization, proposing an outline of family well-being comprised of eight components. She notes that her proposal is intended as a conversation catalyst, “not to operationalize for research, policy or practice just yet.” As her literature review currently lacks Eastern (Asia and Middle East), Central and South American (including Caribbean), African and Indigenous knowledge and efforts to conceptualize family well-being, McGregor states that this research should continue to be expanded and elaborated upon with influence from more diverse sources.
- Financial security and stability includes both economics and family finances, with wide-ranging components, including family income and perceptions of adequacy and their financial situation, obligations, debt, financial problems and hardships, financial uncertainty, sense of financial security, perceived obligation to financially provide for family and family resource management/capacity/skills. Family economic security is associated with their level of protection from economic risks, which contributes to financial stability. This security is linked to and can be measured by a family’s ability to access resources and opportunities “to manage uncertainty, meet basic needs and attain goals.”
- Relational well-being (intra- and interpersonal) recognizes the quality of relationships as key to well-being and looks at how family members are connected, regard one another and behave toward each other. Intra-familial processes refer to interactions between and among family members within the family unit. Scholars have found both “relationships and relationship rules are tied to family flexibility, with flexible meaning being open to change when confronting different circumstances versus striving to stay the same (stable).”
- Group dynamics and cohesion focuses on family dynamic – the way that families function and the processes (behavioural and psychological) involved when people in a collective interact with each other, which can impact the development and state of well-being for family members. While this dimension also looks at the quality of relationships, it specifically underscores that healthy or unhealthy interactions are connected to the establishment of and respect for rules and boundaries (or lack thereof) which impacts family well-being.
- Family autonomy is concerned with the independence of a family unit and how much agency they have over determining their own rules and boundaries. This autonomy refers to a family’s ability to self-govern without intervention or interference from outside authorities. Such interventions refer to the judicial system, and societal mediation or scrutiny (e.g. social workers, teachers or concerned neighbours).
- Collective health looks at the overall health of the family unit, rather than solely just its individual members. The collective approach involves health maintenance through preventative means rather than just remedial measures. Recently, American medical researchers have taken interest in collective well-being as a holistic measure of a community’s overall health. Like communities, families are units with their own structures, cultures and values, which can play a role in shaping their collective health.
- Community connection and the sense of a belonging that a family feels is a contributor of well-being. These connections fulfil the social needs of a family and fosters well-being through values and principles such as trust, reciprocity and social engagement. McGregor cites a 2016 study from New Zealand, which found that families gain strength and sustainability through being welcomed into their community and feeling included. This social support can offer feelings of being cared for, accepted, secure, safe and valued – factors that promote family well-being.
- Spiritual health for an individual can include the following characteristics: a connection with others; an interest in the meaning and purpose of life; and, transcendence (moving beyond “normal” human experiences into another realm). One study asserts that spiritual health influences physical, mental and social health. McGregor’s literature review finds that scholars have not developed a comprehensive definition of spiritual health. To include this dimension as an indicator of family well-being, McGregor writes, “might give families a focus that is larger than themselves, an anchor and a source of strength and inspiration.”
- Ecological well-being is conceptualized as the interconnectedness of well-being of the planet and that of a family. McGregor suggests that a family’s behaviours and lifestyle that support a healthy ecology and planetary welfare would be grounded in mindfulness, awareness and accountability. Families who live with sustainable habits and practices would therefore be considered “ecologically well.”
Supporting family well-being is a growing priority, with McGregor noting that a recent 49-country study found that people in “virtually all nations valued family well-being over individual well-being.” This research found that, “regardless of country or orientation (individual or collective), people valued family well-being (58%) over their own personal well-being (26%), with 16% saying these are equally important.”
As the Vanier Institute continues to develop the Family Well-Being Index, and researchers and policymakers around the world continue to work toward UN Sustainable Development Goals,2 McGregor’s emphasis on conceptual robustness and clarity is an important contribution to these ongoing and evolving conversations.
Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family
- Susan L. T. McGregor, Conceptualizing Family Well-being, McGregor Monograph Series 202001 (May 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/3ltKRFd (PDF).
- The Vanier Institute of the Family, “Sustainable Development Goals.” Link: https://bit.ly/3bw9xrU.