Is It ‘Wellbeing’ Or ‘Well-being’? (And Why It Matters)

Who cares, right? Quite a few people apparently. According to Google Keywords, 450,000 people a month are unsure whether to go with well-being or wellbeing.

For those working in the area, it’s mostly just a minor niggle. The internet makes it more important, though. Get it wrong, and a particular webpage won’t show up in search results. For those looking for information about support services, it could be crucial.

Some of us – the geeky ones, perhaps – have also thought about why there are two words that seem to describe the same thing, and what it means to use one over the other.

The short answer: Should I use ‘well-being’ or ‘wellbeing’?
It’s up to you – just be consistent. Generally, well-being and wellbeing are used to refer to the same thing. While ‘wellbeing’ is becoming more popular, ‘well-being’ is probably still used more. If that’s all you wanted to check, thanks for reading.

If you want to read the analysis, and to know why I suggest using ‘wellbeing’, read on.

What do the dictionaries tell us?
Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries go with ‘well-being’. accepts them both equally.
Princeton, based in the USA, favours ‘wellbeing’, although Merriam Webster, also USA based, goes with ‘well-being’.

On balance then, ‘well-being’ seems to be the linguist’s favourite.

What about general usage?
The media, as you’ve probably gathered, uses both words. In the realm of politics, we find that the British government is not set on ‘well-being’ either. Actually the government seems a bit confused about which to use. While the Office of National Statistics uses ‘well-being’, the number 10 website and parliamentary reports went with ‘wellbeing’.

In the voluntary sector, there’s also a mix of usages. While the New Economics Foundation opts for ‘well-being’, the Young Foundation has gone with ‘wellbeing’.

So, it seems that there’s no agreement on whether to use ‘well-being’ or ‘wellbeing’. The words are used interchangeably, and it’s a matter of personal preference. But things seem to be changing.

What’s the trend?
Here’s where it gets interesting. (Well, about as interesting as a discussion about hyphens can get.) To date, Google search results indicate that ‘well-being’ is more popular than ‘wellbeing’. However, Google Trends indicates that since 2004, searches for ‘well-being’ have been on decline, while searches for wellbeing have significantly increased.

To understand why this is, it’s useful to know the role of the hyphen.

Oxford Dictionaries says that “the hyphen is used to link words and parts of words”. In our case, the words are (obviously) ‘well’ and ‘being’, which, like ‘well-known’, come together to form what is technically known as a compound adjective.

According to ‘The Grammar Curmudgeon‘, “The trend in English is for frequently used word combinations to “grow together” from two words to one, sometimes passing through a hyphenated stage.” But this “hyphenated stage” is, apparently, becoming less and less used, at least partly because of the internet. (A hyphen is often recognised by computer software as a space, which can make things confusing.)

In this way, ‘well being’ has become ‘well-being’, and is gradually becoming ‘wellbeing’. If we accept this it’s only a matter of time before all dictionaries recognise ‘wellbeing’, after which the continuing survival of the hyphenated ‘well-being’ will probably depend upon people finding some need to regress back from ‘wellbeing’ into the broader notion of ‘being well’.

So is there a difference in meaning between ‘wellbeing’ and ‘well-being’?
Yes, kind of.

Most of the time the two words are used interchangeably, but in removing the hyphen, ‘wellbeing’ implies a standalone meaning beyond merely ‘being well’. So, if we mean ‘being well’ then use of the word ‘well-being’ might be most appropriate. But if we want to express more than this, such as psychological interpretations of the term (which are increasingly common), then ‘wellbeing’ might be better.

As interest in measuring well[-]being continues to grow, independent meanings for the word will continue to develop. There will inevitably be more debate around the meaning of the word, but widespread use of the word ‘welfare’, which is also a coming together of two words (‘faring’ and ‘well’), suggests that the ambiguity of the word will not be enough to stop ‘wellbeing’ from becoming more prominent than ‘well-being’. In short, ‘wellbeing’ is here to stay.

Why might it be better to use ‘wellbeing’?
There are two reasons why I (usually*) use ‘wellbeing’ over ‘well-being’.

  1. When I use the word ‘wellbeing’ I am referring to more than just ‘being well’. Academic accounts of well[-]being (such as this one from Ryff and Keyes) consistently refer to well[-]being as a dynamic and active state of flourishing, which conflicts with the sense of mild satisfaction and inertia implied by the term ‘being well’.
  2. If my earlier analysis is correct then, despite dictionary definitions, the word ‘wellbeing’ will become more widely used than ‘well-being’. By adopting ‘wellbeing’ now, we accelerate the transition and minimise the period in which inconsistency over use of the words causes webpages to be missed by those searching for information about services and resources.

So that’s my analysis of the wellbeing / well-being issue. Dispute anything I’ve said? Got something to add? Let me know!

* The exception would of course be when referring to a specific article that uses ‘well-being’, where the use of ‘wellbeing’ would then cause confusion.

Think Tank Reports Minorities Have Lower Well-being. How valid is the data?

The New Economics Foundation’s Centre for Well-being, a leading think tank for well-being research and policy, expressed concern today about apparent disparities in well-being between ethnic groups. The corresponding report says the following:

“We find that Black, Arab, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian people experience significantly lower well-being than White people in the UK, even when controlling for individual characteristics”.

The research might have controlled for individual characteristics (I don’t know, I haven’t read through it yet…), but what about cultural characteristics?

The questions that the participants in the study were asked were based on self-perception (i.e. how the participants view themselves and their lives). This raises issues. We know, for instance, that according to the latest research there is good reason to believe that those from North America are more likely to show positivity biases than those from Asia, potentially causing them to inflate their own self-rating for life satisfaction (Kim, Schimmack & Oishi, 2012). Then there are the potential language issues that arise from trying to ask subjective questions of those that don’t necessarily share the same first language (the report doesn’t mention what language(s) the participants speak).

I tweeted the Centre for Wellbeing to ask if they had controlled for cultural interpretation of well-being. They responded: “We didn’t control for cultural interpretation. Could be explanatory factor, needs investigation“.

Maybe it doesn’t matter much at this stage, but due consideration of cultural differences is surely going to be crucial as well-being research becomes increasingly influential in policy-making.

Kim, H.,  Schimmack, U., & Oishi, S. (2012) ‘Cultural Differences in Self- and Other-Evaluations and Well-Being: A Study of European and Asian Canadians’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 102, no. 4, pp. 856–873.