Psychological Well-Being

Psychological well-being (PWB) is a theory of positive psychological functioning that focuses on the human capacity to develop, function effectively, and flourish. Theoretical beliefs about what constitutes PWB derive from the philosophical and psychological writings of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

For Maslow, human behavior was characterized by movement toward self-actualization and, at the same time, limited by more basic processes such as physiological and safety needs. Actualization is attainable only if basic needs were met. Rogers shared the perspective that self-actualization is an inherent possibility and posited that certain interpersonal conditions, such as empathy, respect, and genuineness, facilitate movement toward self-actualization. Thus, consistent with Maslow and Rogers, current PWB theory holds that the development of human potential involves two processes: (1) the inherent human drive for self-actualization, and (2) the creation of the conditions under which that drive might be optimized. These views form the philosophical foundation of counseling psychology.

Three types of studies provide the empirical foundation of PWB theory: (1) factor analytic studies of the organization among individual characteristics of well-being, (2) developmental studies of the changes in well-being across the life span, and (3) neurophysiological studies of the biological correlates of expressions of well-being. One of the more well-developed measures of PWB incorporates six theory-driven dimensions: positive self-evaluations, a sense of continued growth and development, the belief that life is purposeful, the possession of quality relations with others, the capacity to manage one’s surroundings effectively, and a sense of self-determination. Data from national surveys, longitudinal studies, and experimental laboratory studies have indicated that PWB indicators are influenced by broad social factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, and culture; PWB changes as individuals are confronted with life challenges and transitions; and PWB indicators are associated with diverse health outcomes.

Conceptually PWB is related to subjective well-being (SWB), although not identical to it. SWB is related to judgments of relative happiness and quality of life, whereas PWB has more to do with the management of the existential challenges of life such as having meaning in one’s life and growing and developing as a person.

A challenge for mental and physical health professionals is to integrate the psychological evidence concerning the complex, multidimensional nature of PWB into effective primary and secondary prevention programs. The goals are to help normally functioning individuals optimize their lives and to minimize the negative effects of illness or psychopathology. Thus, interventions that are provided to normal functioning people may promote even higher functioning and inoculation against dysfunction. Interventions for people with psychopathology or illness might focus on developing resilience skills; that is, the ability to bounce back to normal functioning or to exceed prior functioning.

Psychologists are presently focused on developing an understanding of the multiple pathways that lead to resilience and how these pathways change throughout life. It is upon this knowledge base that intervention programs to maintain and improve well-being are being constructed.


  1. Keyes, C. L., Shmotkin, D., & Ryff, C. D. (2002). Optimizing well-being: The empirical encounter of two traditions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 1007-1022.
  2. Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations of the meaning of well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081.
  3. Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. (1996). Psychological well-being: Meaning, measurement, and implications for psychotherapy research. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 65, 14-23.

See also: