The what: positive focus and the six dimensions of personal well-being

Like many concepts, well-being has a number of spiritual ancestors and as many different names. As early as 1989 Carol D. Ryff called out for the fragmented literature on positive focus to be brought together in order to ensure that empirical research on well-being could be aligned. Based on existing literature and personal research, she described six dimensions.

The first one is ‘self-acceptance’.  A positive attitude towards oneself expressed by, amongst other things, acceptance of one’s strengths and weaknesses or satisfaction with one’s life. People obtaining low scores on self-acceptance are often disappointed in life and would like to be somebody else.

A second dimension is ‘autonomy’.  An ability to function independently and evaluate oneself based on personal standards. People obtaining low scores on this dimension are often worried about what other people think about them and are more vulnerable to social pressure.

‘Environmental mastery’ is the third dimension. It identifies our ability to choose and shape our environment, however complex. When individuals have difficulty managing everyday reality and do not identify opportunities in their environment, they will obtain a low score on this dimension.

Fourth is ‘purpose in life’.  This means paying particular attention to purpose and to setting personal goals. People seeing little purpose in life, who do not set personal goals and have no focus on the future experience less well-being.

The fifth dimension is ‘positive relations with others’ or the ability to love, be empathic and truly connected in relationships. People who isolate themselves, have difficulty to engage in relationships, or to empathise will have low scores.

The last and sixth dimension assesses ‘personal growth’, the pursuit of new experiences, exploiting development opportunities and aiming for improvement. When somebody has no more interest in the outside world, experiences a standstill and makes no more changes he or she will have a low score on this dimension.

These six dimensions form Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Well-being. Despite the criticism, which mainly targets the difficulty to define certain dimensions, they appear to be pretty solid constructs. Taking into account the clear mutual influence between man and organisation we also see a strong influence of well-being on job-related performance.

Well-being is not only important as a concept on a personal and a professional level. Its analysis becomes even more powerful and useful when split into six dimensions. In respect of personal well-being we will discuss these dimensions in terms of what they mean and what they represent by linking them to related theories and research. As stated earlier, we will focus on two: self-acceptance and purpose in life.

1. What is self-acceptance?

"Self-acceptance is a present time activity aiming at being satisfied with oneself, including past and present circumstances."

Since the appearance of and research on Mindfulness, the concept of self-acceptance gets more attention because it is one of the central elements. Mindfulness can be defined as ‘the process to get to new insights’. Both in terms of health and society, professional life and in education research shows that initiatives contributing to dealing ‘mindfully’ with situations have positive effects. This can vary from the successful treatment of alcoholism in the elderly to reducing the number of accidents in a company or improving the attention span of students.

The key aspect in this process is to tackle problems yourself. It should not come as a surprise that, to get new insights, one first has to know and accept the existing situation. Sayings such as ‘You cannot take care of others if you do not take care of yourself’ are often used in welfare aid and education with good reason.  A lot of literature and research exists to prove there is a correlation between one’s self-image and its impact on others. Thus we could extend the saying to ‘if you cannot accept yourself, you will have difficulty accepting others’.

Self-acceptance is fundamentally different from self-esteem or self-worth. Being successful and achieving objectives are important factors in building self-esteem. Self-acceptance, however, is not built on achieving success.  It is a state of mind without connections to the outside world and without assessment.

We often experience negative feelings because we are too focused on the outside world and on achieving (financial) success. Success can indeed lead to improved self-esteem but it will not suffice to continue making positive choices based on self-acceptance.

Unfortunately, the current trend in society is to attach a great deal of importance to achieving and appreciating results. A lot less attention is given to accepting each other irrespective of results and successes. This is a pity because, both historically and more recently, research shows a positive connection between self-acceptance and the efficiency of leaders and general satisfaction of people.

Therefore, targeting unconditional self-acceptance these days is a ‘must do’, whether as a friend, parent, colleague or manager.

2. Purpose in life

"Purpose in life can be defined as the deeper meaning we wish to give our personal and professional life. Based on that meaning we can define objectives and pursue them actively."

The themes positivity, positive focus and happiness form for many thinkers, from psychologists to philosophers, a rich source of vigorous debate that even the ancient Greeks participated in. A first group of thinkers headed by Aristippus’ ideas considered acquiring a maximum dose of joy as their main purpose in life. According to this hedonistic view happiness can be reduced to the quest for pleasant experiences and avoidance of negative events. This vision was, and still is, criticised from a variety of perspectives. Aristotle considered the search for hedonistic happiness vulgar, reducing people to slaves of their direct desires. As an alternative, eudaemonism appeared, making a distinction between well-being and happiness. Ryff and Singer take from this approach a plea to consider the purpose of life and the pursuit of perfection through the realization of one's true potential.

Besides the elements of autonomy and setting goals we can see expansion to others, such as self fulfilment and meaning, within the eudaimoniatische vision.

The search for a more integrated approach between who we are as a person and what we do professionally, requires specific attention to the latter. If individuals do not succeed in setting sustainable goals, it becomes even more difficult to do so on a larger scale, for instance within families and organisations.

In cases of depression, addiction or even suicidal thoughts, to have or not to have a purpose in life does play an important role. Having purposeful objectives is equally important for well-being within organisations. Personal goal facilitation is the extent to which someone’s job helps to achieve personal goals. Research shows that positive perception creates more positive attitudes with regard to work and better well-being.

In other words, setting personal goals is an assignment of importance for all souls striving for more well-being, be it at work or at home.


The day that we learn to accept ourselves as we are, with all its positive and negative elements, is also the day that we can focus less on image and more on identity.

Crucial is to decide what you want to reach in life – and by doing so you ensure that what you do is aligned with who you are. To get there it is necessary to set goals and stick to them. It is liberating to know what you want, rather than what you don’t want.

While waiting on the first dashes of sun – this article is a warm call for more self-acceptance and purpose in life.