Yale Experts Explain Collective Well-Being

Graphic image of hands holding a heart
December 2, 2022

In the decades to come, the impacts of climate change will test the strength and resilience of communities. How well they fare may partly depend on the well-being not only of individuals but of communities as a whole. 

Dr. Brita Roy, Assistant Professor Adjunct at Yale School of Medicine, has developed an innovative research framework for measuring and understanding “collective well-being”—a holistic way to assess the overall health of a community. Dr. Maya Prabhu, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, is a member of a University committee working to develop a collective well-being framework for Yale and has thought deeply about its connections to sustainability.

In an interview, Roy and Prabhu discuss the connection between environmental change and collective well-being—and how to create a more equitable future for all communities.

How do you define collective well-being?

ROY: At its most basic, collective well-being refers to how well a group of people is doing. We think of individual well-being as how a person feels about their personal, physical, mental, and social health, and their financial well-being. But we recognize that people live in a society, which influences these aspects of and opportunities to achieve well-being. So, the term collective well-being thinks about the overall health and functioning of the group as a whole.

PRABHU: In psychiatry, we tend to use the term community health or community mental health. That’s meant to recognize that people get to define their own sense of identity—which also means getting to decide their own community—whether based around ethnicity, religion, geography, job, or where they go to school. Each of those communities therefore gets to define their own sense of well-being for themselves. Every community will have a different sense of what it means to thrive and to withstand challenges, whether it’s COVID or climate change.

How does one measure collective well-being?

ROY: That is being actively studied right now. Aggregating individual-level well-being can give you a sense of how a group is doing. But also assessing how people in a community interact with the group and the opportunities the community provides to foster well-being provides critical information about the well-being of a community. We have developed five domains to assess collective well-being:

  • Vitality is overall physical and emotional health, including a sense of optimism and hope for the future.
  • Connectedness is how connected and supported you feel by your community—your sense of belonging to that group.
  • Opportunity is how you feel about your financial situation and your ability to achieve your life goals.
  • Contribution looks at how engaged and involved you feel in your community—for example, volunteering is an activity that may provide of a sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Inspiration is about engagement in activities that are mentally stimulating, where you just kind of lose yourself. That feeling of full immersion is really important for mental and emotional well-being.

Graphic showing the five domains of collective well-being

Why is it important to assess well-being at the community level, especially at a time like this?

PRABHU: The last few years have reminded us that human beings are social beings, and that, for the most part, people need some form of community engagement. When communities don’t thrive, individuals don’t thrive. COVID has done a lot to show us that when we are disconnected from each other people can struggle with mental health, anxiety, depression, a sense of lacking purpose, and loneliness.

ROY: There are so many challenges right now that are affecting people in different ways. And so, if you don’t measure it, then you don’t know what’s going well, what’s not going well, and how to better support a community.

Do we have data on how the pandemic affected collective well-being?

ROY: When we assess people’s ‘overall life evaluation,’ we ask them to imagine themselves on a ladder with rungs going from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top—where zero is the worst possible life for you and 10 is the best. We ask them which rung of that ladder they would put themselves on now and then ask, ‘where do you think you’ll be five years from now?’ And what we saw during the pandemic was that people’s current life evaluation did drop, but their future life evaluation actually stayed the same or improved. People felt like life isn’t as good right now, but it’s a temporary setback and they expect things will get better in the future.

What are the greatest predictors of collective well-being in a community?

ROY: My team and I conducted a study that explored 75 community-level factors to identify which of these best predicted collective well-being. Higher levels of diversity, access to health care and preventive care, and socioeconomic measures such as education were the strongest predictors. Another was the presence of bike lanes—the percentage of people in a community that commute to work by bicycle.

Are there communities that have measurably improved their collective well-being by taking certain steps?

ROY: Yes. We worked with a group of communities out in California that implemented the Blue Zones Project, which is a program that helps a community improve the food environment and built environment, and focus on increasing rates of volunteerism, connectedness, and contribution. And through that process, it actually did improve those communities’ well-being over time—in around six to eight years. So, it is possible, but it requires buy-in from leadership and a sustained coalition of people that are willing to engage to make an impact on collective well-being.

Given the compounding challenges of climate change—climate anxiety and environmental justice among them—how can a community or organization’s focus on collective well-being help to advance sustainability and resilience?

ROY: Environment directly impacts well-being. There are studies that show access to nature enhances people’s well-being, so preserving green space is vital. If people have higher well-being, they are also more likely to engage in trying to make their environment more sustainable to ensure they have a future on this planet. I think especially for the younger population, sustainability efforts help alleviate climate anxiety. And lower levels of climate anxiety mean higher levels of well-being.

PRABHU: One of the problems with how we used to talk about resilience is that it seemed to put all the emphasis on individual efforts to be well, and that sometimes had the effect of making people feel like they had failed to take care of themselves. The heightened focus on climate has reminded us that everyone’s individual well-being depends on social determinants of health, which may include factors such as environmental health, access to green space, infrastructure, schools, changing landscape, changing temperature. We’ve also been reminded that when communities function well together, it allows people to tolerate stresses, and we know the future will bring climate stresses.

What are the main factors that can improve collective well-being, especially as it relates to strengthening communities facing climate disruptions?

ROY: One is engagement and action. Being part of a group that’s actively working to create change enhances a sense of belonging and connectedness. And if you’re able to make an impact and improve air quality or improve the amount of green space, that will also improve community well-being over time.

PRABHU: Don’t underestimate the solace that you will find by getting together a group of people, even just to name the challenges that are before you on the issues of climate resilience and sustainability. Recently, we sent around an email encouraging people to join our departmental climate change and mental health group. We expected we’d get maybe 10 people and we got 30. People said again and again how grateful they were to have found a community of like-minded people, just having a space where their interests and concerns could be shared and acted upon, in small and big ways.

Can assessing collective well-being help us address justice and equity issues in a community or organization?

PRABHU: Yes. We know from a lot of data that markers for poor mental health—feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety—improve when people have a sense of being in a community or organization that feels fair and inclusive, and which represents them in some way. Thinking about justice and equity will address both individual and community well-being.

ROY: Measuring well-being is an equalizer. It’s an equitable way to see how people are functioning and feeling. Even communities with residents of lower income —but which have really strong social connectedness and cultural cohesion— can achieve high well-being. It’s equitable in that sense because it allows each person or community—based on their values and priorities—to rate how they are doing.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about collective well-being and sustainability?

ROY: It’s not just climate sustainability, but sustainability of an organization that is important. If we think about Yale itself as an organization made up of individuals, enhancing everyone’s well-being in all domains makes the University stronger and more sustainable, and just a better place to live, work, and be.

What is Yale doing?

A committee of Yale faculty and staff, convened by the Office of Sustainability, created an assessment tool based on Dr. Roy’s collective well-being framework for people to measure their well-being across the five domains. Individuals can identify opportunities for improvement and explore corresponding University resources accessible to all members of the Yale community.