Making Sense of Well-being: A Mixed-Methods Study Applying Sense-making Theory to Explore the Role of Communication Competence and Social Support in Physical, Emotional, Mental and Comprehensive Well-being

Suzanne Carmack

Major Professor: Gary L. Kreps, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Xiaoquan Zhao, Joshua Rosenberger

Johnson Center, C
April 04, 2014, 01:00 PM to 10:00 AM


In keeping with the World Health Organization’s definition of health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” (WHO, 1948) this study investigated well-being from a health communication perspective. Expanding upon previous interdisciplinary literature which has sought to define what well-being is, and what it is not, in often complex and competing ways, this investigation explores how individual members of the George Mason University culture (i.e. faculty, staff and students) make sense of well-being with regards to their health and their lived experience. Inspired by Kreps’s (1988) Relational Health Communication Competence Model (RHCCM), Dervin’s (2008) Sense-Making methodology and Weick’s (2005) sensemaking theory, this mixed-methods study qualitatively explores well-being as a sensemaking process, and quantitatively explores the influence of communication competence and social support on physical, mental and emotional well-being outcomes. In the first and qualitative portion of the study, a small (n=38) self-selected, non-randomized sample population of faculty, staff and students of George Mason University were interviewed using open-ended questions inspired by Sense-Making methodology (Dervin, 2008) to uncover how these respondents make sense of their well-being. In the second and quantitative portion of the study, a larger and more diverse sample population (n=644) completed a multi-faceted self-report survey instrument measuring interpersonal communication competence, social support, and comprehensive, emotional, mental and physical well-being. RESULTS In both qualitative and quantitative data, communication competence, social support, and the communicative act of Sense-making (Dervin, 2008) were shown to positively correlate with the self-reported and subjective well-being of the participants in this study. Additionally, comprehensive, mental, physical, and emotional well-being were shown to influence dimensions of communication competence and social support for this population. Future studies should expand upon this exploratory study, to determine whether these effects are unique to this representative sample population for the full university population and culture, and/or for other populations and organizational cultures. CONCLUSION This study offers health communication and public health scholars and practitioners mixed-methods insights into the role that well-being plays in the three central avenues of health communication scholarship: health literacy, patient-provider communication and health promotion.

This study was made possible by grants from the GMU Center for the Advancement of Well-being, and the GMU Office of the Provost. Additional research support was provided by the GMU Department of Communication.