The Rise of Science-Backed Subjective Well-Being

By Jamie Anderson & Fergus Anderson
Jan 24, 2019 5:20 PM ET

Designers have long understood the inextricable relationship between buildings and the people inside of them, but the direct link to human health and well-being has only recently come to the fore. Not only does the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) provide a framework to design spaces for maximizing long, healthy lives, but it also creates an environment that emphasizes Subjective Well-being (SWB). This concept aims to improve people’s perceived quality of experience – their personal feelings – about themselves and how they relate to others. After all, it is quality and quantity of life that matters, right?

The capacity to understand and deliver environments that support SWB are both in their infancy. The WELL Building Standard™ (WELL™) and the WELL Community Standard™ pilot are key facilitators in improving this situation, as they help researchers and practitioners avoid making unfounded or surface-level claims about well-being interventions, and instead develop a more robust area of study.

The problem
For some time, the SWB movement was not seen as a reputable field. It was dismissed as having weak scientific foundations and received much criticism. In the past 30 years or so, this has been altered dramatically, as the science of SWB has grown in standing. However, this is not yet the case for the connection between SWB and the built environment. Although there are strong areas of initial research underpinning links between urban greening and SWB, the evidence is limited and varies greatly in terms of quality of insight.

A solution
While the study of SWB and the built environment has been limited thus far, a key solution is to give potential consumers of SWB data a more evidence-based, holistic approach; something to help grapple with the inherent complexity of urban SWB. As quantum physicist Johannes Eichstaedt put it: “Wellbeing is more complex than quantum physics and the questions are twice as interesting.” A more rigorous strategy represents a multifaceted myriad of interacting factors, often simultaneously-- a  person’s genetics, built and natural environments, professional, family and community life— each shaping SWB from moment-to-moment.

The ability to disentangle these factors  requires solid theory, experimental precision and the ability to differentiate between causation and correlation. This common mistake is found in nearly all areas of study. For example, in a non-SWB example, credible data collected between 1999 and 2009 found a 95% correlation between cheese consumption per capita and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in bedsheets.

Though a link between greenspace and stress reduction may not have the same logical basis as that of cheese-consumption and the lethality of bedsheets, it can be equally unclear how, and to what extent, greenspace contributes to stress reduction. This unclear relationship results in a low degree of priority given to greenspace in practice. Therefore, a better understanding its connection to stress reduction is necessary, as it influence how public health authorities make decisions, particularly in regards to public parks.

How WELL Can Help
WELL is important in ameliorating this situation from both a demand/decision-maker perspective and also a supply/research community perspective. In our projects such as International Quarter London or the BuroHappold office in Warsaw that recently achieved WELL Certification at the Gold Level, we rely on WELL as the authoritative source of the latest ‘what works’ science. Within the Mind concept, for example, the evidence underpinning the provision of the Mental Health Promotion feature (M01) is drawn from multiple sources and meta-analyses.

Meta-analyses present summary evidence, and avoid ‘cherry picking’ single studies, thereby ensuring that this particular feature (M01) is prioritized as a precondition in the WELL v2™ Pilot.  However, the meta-analyses for the Mental Health Promotion feature, and for nearly all meta-analyses in general, may have some flaws. A portion of the studies rely on old data, rudimentary methods or research that does not directly apply to the content of the feature. This highlights opportunities to fill knowledge gaps and help deliver the ambition of IWBI’s international mission.     

From a supply perspective and in a research capacity, WELL motivates further scientific inquiry by offering an authoritative and credible home for research, for example, at the Urban Institute, University of Manchester. In the context of field experiments, our award winning review sparked constructive debate, as we have begun to address 8 challenges of complexity, defining what more rigorous methods might look like and building new tools, such as MOHAWk (Method for Observing pHysical Activity and Wellbeing).

It is an exciting time for SWB and science-based design. Addressing knowledge gaps with higher quality research will better inform a growing interest in this area and need not hinder future action. Despite the challenges, we are optimistic that WELL, championed by an increasingly global community, along with sufficient evidence, will catalyse the evolution of a healthy and vibrant knowledge ecosystem.

Jamie is an member of the WELL Community concept Advisory. He is passionate about creating strong research and the translation of this into evidence informed design. He continues to collaborate with the Cambridge Well-being Institute and is working on 3 large well-being research projects led by Sheffield and Manchester Universities (IWUN, GHIA, GrowGreen). His key translation work is with BuroHappold (BH), liaising with developers, national and local policy makers. He is working with BH's Sustainability and Cities teams on several exciting projects to explore 'urban wellbeing' in practice. These include the International Quarter London and Olympicopolis, The Factory in Manchester and a proposed new Asian city.