Why language matters: wellbeing is everyone’s business

Professor Lindsay Oades is the Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education. In this interview with Berry Street he provides a fascinating insight into why wellbeing literacy matters and how schools can help students learn it.

What is wellbeing literacy?
In simple terms it is how people communicate about wellbeing to try and achieve wellbeing.

Communication can involve reading, writing, speaking, listening, creating and viewing. Communication also needs to be adapted to different contexts, for example, at work compared to at home. It is more than static knowledge and vocabulary.

Positive education would be very difficult without wellbeing language.

What role do you think should schools play in developing wellbeing literacy in their students?
Schools play a major role in developing their students’ ability to articulate wellbeing. We know how important literacy is in general for student life outcomes. Wellbeing literacy elevates the importance of wellbeing by viewing it as a cross curriculum and pedagogical endeavour.

Imagine a world where wellbeing literacy is part of NAPLAN. Imagine an Australia where every student has a personalised wellbeing plan, negotiated with a school representative and parent/guardian, with appropriate input when needed from relevant health professionals. For this to occur, all parties need functional wellbeing literacy.

One of the things the Berry Street Childhood Institute loves about the concept of wellbeing literacy is changing perspective from focusing on fixing problems, to achieving positive outcomes. Tell us about this.
Good positive education will build wellbeing literacy. This ability to articulate wellbeing will enable students to convert opportunities into wellbeing outcomes.

For teachers, building students’ capability could include helping them:

  • read about wellbeing;
  • write about wellbeing;
  • speak/sing about wellbeing;
  • listen/hear about wellbeing;
  • create about wellbeing (e.g. draw, sculpt, compose); and
  • view wellbeing (e.g. appreciate art, understand emojis etc.).

Culture is learned, capabilities are learnable. The opportunities are endless. The underlying capability for wellbeing remains wellbeing literacy.

Another important element of wellbeing literacy is building the dialogue between students and the school community.

The old language philosophers used to say “there is no such thing as a private language”. Language is shared. Wellbeing exists in conversations, not just in people’s heads. So rather than just individuals learning how to use strengths, let’s examine how parents, teachers and students communicate about strengths in multiple ways across multiple contexts.

What led you to focus on wellbeing literacy?
There were several influences.

My earlier work involved working with people with enduring mental illness, such as schizophrenia. What I learned is that many people were in language environments saturated by illness discourse. So they found it very difficult to articulate a positive future. This was not only because of a lack of hope, they literally did not have active vocabularies that included wellbeing and positive words. Stated simply, they were imprisoned by their own discourse, and the discourse around them.

As I have progressed in my understanding of wellbeing across health, business and now education sectors, this theme has become increasingly evident. That is, if we continually communicate with a negativity bias, our conceptions of wellbeing will be limited by this.

And finally, what future questions need to be addressed in the development of the concept of wellbeing literacy?
At the Centre for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne, we continue to build a research program around six questions.

  1. What is wellbeing literacy?
  2. How can it be measured?
  3. What is the relationship between wellbeing literacy and wellbeing?
  4. How do laypeople conceptualise and language wellbeing?
  5. How do we increase wellbeing literacy?
  6. What are the large scale systemic implications of wellbeing?

We currently have several academics, research students and practitioners working on this. We invite you to join the conversation. Please contact Professor Lindsay Oades at lindsay.oades@unimelb.edu.au

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