What We (Don’t) Talk About When We Talk About Wellbeing: Advice from the Greatest Generation

Sara Ivey, Institute for People, Place, & Possibility | I have been talking about “wellbeing” since I started at IP3 – the organization that stewards Community Commons – seven months ago. No longer relegated to an add-on to “health,” wellbeing has come into its own in a big way. The word itself is buzzing, and there has been an uptick in wellbeing-focused efforts.

Click to explore the data.

Community Commons is getting on board with wellbeing too. We’re broadening our view to encompass all dimensions of wellbeing, recognizing that people need more than just physical health to live their best lives. (We look forward to sharing more when we launch the new Community Commons later this year.) Expansive and inclusive, wellbeing encompasses overall perceived quality of life, and integrates important dimensions including mental and emotional wellbeing, financial wellbeing, belonging, social cohesion and civic health (see CDC and WHO for more).

Our seven-month-and-counting conversation about wellbeing has centered around Well Being Legacy, a new initiative being launched through partnership with IP3, Well Being Trust, ReThink Health, and Community Initiatives. During this formative phase, we are developing definitions and frameworks; assessing data and current states of affairs; and learning what works to create conditions for wellbeing in communities, and bringing those stories of hope to a national stage.

Well Being Legacy conceives of wellbeing in terms of personal experiences of health and wellbeing, and community conditions that enable wellbeing (more on this to come!). It recognizes the impact of systems on our health and wellbeing, and positions community conditions at the nexus of policy decisions, community investments, and practices deployed by sectors and institutions. Just as wellbeing is shaped by the choices of those who came before us, we have the power to shape our legacies. That’s why, through Well Being Legacy, we’re learning how to manifest changes in communities, and set communities on a trajectory that creates conditions for wellbeing for generations to come.

As we look for and to leaders enacting a wellbeing agenda for intergenerational change, I find myself wishing that we could learn a few things from my grandmother, Emily, a woman who single-handedly brought about intergenerational change in my family and embedded conditions for wellbeing in future generations.

Circa 1990 | Grandma, Emily Knapp (1916-2012), Mom, Shirley Stirling, and baby me.

A young person during the Great Depression and unable to attend college, Grandma Emily was determined to change things for the next generation. Empowering her descendants through education became a defining priority that my grandmother pursued with laser-focus for decades. To help put her children and grandchildren through college, Grandma Emily worked multiple jobs, scrimped and saved. Working hard and living frugally was religion to her. Her life experience – growing up on a ranch in rural Colorado and being widowed at a young age – underscored the value of hard work and the need for financial independence and security. For my grandma, education was her best bet at building futures of opportunity and meaningful, wellbeing-filled lives for the generations that followed.

And she did it! She created conditions for wellbeing for an entire family. I am a living, breathing testament. Humbled, privileged and full of love, the wellbeing I enjoy is a direct result of my grandmother’s intergenerational plot to enact change. Her remarkable grit, foresight, and legacy continue to inspire me daily, and ground me in what’s important for wellbeing. Although my grandma’s success was in transforming a family, her wisdoms readily apply to community transformation. After all, as my mother, the social worker, would remind me, family is the building block of community.

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