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Six Dimensions of Well-Being


Explanations > Needs > Six Dimensions of Well-Being

Material well-being | Bodily well-being | Social well-being | Security | Freedom of choice and action | Psychological well-being |  So what?


From an analysis of studies in poverty, Deepa Narayan and colleagues identified aspects of well-being that appear to be important to poor people around the world. This was reduced by Sabina Alkire of the World Bank to a list of six dimensions. Such studies of poverty offer another lens onto fundamental human needs.

Much of this is based on the general assumptions of a capability approach to needs and well-being, where possession leads to a capability to act, followed by action, utility and consequent relative happiness:

Commodity -> Capability (to function) -> Function(ing) -> Utility (e.g. happiness)

Material well-being

Material well-being means having those things that you need for basic life, for example shelter, clothing, tools, land, livestock and so on. In particular it means having enough. If you do not have the assets to grow your own food, then you need work that gives you money to get the things you need. When you have the things by which you can build a better life, then you are on the road to achieving this. Without these basic things, then there is little chance of progress.

Bodily well-being

To build a good life, you also need to be fit and healthy. This can be helped a great deal by having sufficient medical assistance to help in curing or addressing illnesses and chronic conditions such that your quality of life and ability to work are adequately improved. Bodily well-being also includes living in an environment free from pollution, where water and air help sustain life without poisoning people.

Social well-being

Social well-being includes belonging to a social group and having the esteem of others within that group. When we have friends and family around us, we have people who can help us both physically, such as in growing food and creating shelter, and also psychologically as we feel good in their company. Social well-being includes the ability to marry and that children are cared for, even when their parents are unable to fulfil this duty. It also means people can live with self-respect and dignity, in peace and in good relationships with the people around them.


We have a deep need to feel safe, secure from attack or other loss that would set us back on our road to success. Material, bodily and social elements can all contribute to this as societies put significant effort into defending themselves from outsiders as well as creating legal and policing systems to ensure internal order. Civil peace is important here, as to live in war-torn place is not to have well-being. A good measure of security is that people have confidence in a safe future for themselves, their families and communities.

Freedom of choice and action

Our need for a sense of control supports our broader need for freedom, in which we have the ability to speak our own truths and to pursue our own path to happiness. This includes having choice and being allowed to act as we wish. Laws may constrain this, but should only be to ensure that others also have their freedom. Poverty is often associated with powerlessness, which means being unable to change one's future. Freedom hence should come with the power to lift oneself and create a better future.

Psychological well-being

Encircling all other needs and well-being is the way we feel. With psychological well-being, we are mentally well-adjusted and are overall content with our situation, other than the normal human ups and downs of emotional experience. This includes being free from oppression and distress, and can be significantly enhanced by a strong social support for times when we do feel distress.

So what?

In thinking about needs, consider how those who have little prioritize their actions and seek happiness. This can add another dimension to how you understand the human condition when seeking to change minds.

See also

Nussbaum's Ten Central Human Functional Capabilities

Alkire (2002). Valuing freedoms: Sen's capability approach and poverty reduction. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press

Narayan, D. et al. (2000). Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices of the Poor. New York: Oxford University Press (published for World Bank)


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