The Four Pillars of Wellbeing

The Four Pillars

Most of us want similar things in life – to be fit and healthy; to develop close relationships; to earn a good living through work that we enjoy. These are all important factors that contribute to our wellbeing, or how satisfied we feel with our lives.

However, none of these things are promised to us and they’re not necessarily easy to attain either. Good health, close relationships, financial success – these all require continuous effort on our part.

For that reason, we shouldn’t see them as a checklist of objectives to sequentially tick off, but rather, as a constant balance we must try our best to successfully manage and upkeep. 

Naturally, at times, some areas will slip as others are prioritised or circumstances change (e.g. Covid), but it’s important we keep that holistic picture in mind; it’s important we recognise their interconnectedness.

Our physical health, mental health, social life and financial situation all work together simultaneously – they each contribute to how we feel and perform on a day-to-day basis (i.e. our wellbeing as a whole).

If we see our wellbeing as resting (at least to some degree) on each of these four areas, we must also recognise that neglecting one (or more of them) will come with a cost.

For instance, by pursuing financial success at the expense of our mental health, we may find that, in the end, the sacrifice wasn’t worth the end result. One area can’t ever fully make up for the lack of another.

This isn’t to say that we must perfectly optimise each area; it’s simply to recognise their collective significance so that we avoid overlooking and, as a result, needlessly neglecting any particular one. Our aim should be to carve out enough time for each area rather than striving for perfection in a single area.

The Arrival Fallacy

If we approach our goals with false expectations – in particular, if we fall into the trap of thinking “I’ll be happy when I achieve 𝑥” – we’re likely to face disappointment down the road. This is commonly referred to as ‘the arrival fallacy’ – the idea that there’s an ‘end destination’ where we’ll find lasting happiness and all of our problems solved.

It’s easy to see how we might neglect certain areas if we’re convinced, in this scenario, that another will bring us everything we’re looking for. However, this is unlikely to be the case.

For a start, we might consider the concept of diminishing marginal returns: at a certain point, more time invested towards a single goal will result in a relatively smaller payoff. 

In the case of money, for example, many studies suggest that while earning too little can certainly cause us distress and unhappiness, beyond a certain point, having more money doesn’t make us any happier.

To avoid ‘the arrival fallacy’, it’s important to understand that happiness is not an equation, but a practice just like anything else.

That is to say, even if we could perfectly optimize our physical health, mental health, social life and financial situation, this wouldn’t guarantee our happiness. On the flipside, neglecting any of these areas doesn’t guarantee our unhappiness either. The idea is just that, by prioritising a balance of each of these four, we put ourselves in a position where we’re more likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled.

A Strong Foundation

We usually set goals because we believe that achieving them will improve our lives in some regard. This may be true to a certain extent, as the general consensus in psychology is that making progress on our goals generates positive emotions and enhances our overall wellbeing.

But the key word here is progress. Progress on our goals is what makes us feel good and, as we noted in the last section, not necessarily their attainment.

If we can internalise this and remind ourselves that there’s not a perfect ‘end point’ to reach, we realise that all progress is enjoyable no matter where we’re starting from. It’s all just relative to our initial position.

We shouldn’t be too concerned with our current standing, as satisfaction will come from moving in the desired direction. Ideally, we should strive towards a situation where we feel as though each of these four pillars is at a ‘good enough’ standard.

By focusing on ‘good enough’ across all pillars, we have the time and energy to improve in all of them, laying a robust foundation. Like an investor diversifying his portfolio, if circumstances cause one to crack or fall, we can pour into the others, maintaining our balance and minimising our losses.

The benefit is twofold: a stronger foundation in one area usually strengthens the others. Being in good shape, for example, will benefit our mental health.

Therefore, by maintaining a balance, we’re better able to consistently progress towards all of our goals. This includes goals that lie outside of our wellbeing – goals motivated by ambition or legacy, such as being an expert in our chosen field, or having a large impact on others lives.

The truth is, achieving these will require far more than just consistency, but without it, we don’t stand a chance. The entrepreneur that doesn’t learn to manage his stress levels will likely burn out sooner rather than later.

Prioritising our wellbeing does not then mean being unambitious. It’s the opposite – we give up the sprint, to focus on the marathon. We strive for a healthy balance so that we can go the full distance.