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Vital Conditions
for Health and
Well-Being

Why do some populations thrive and prosper while others struggle and suffer? The Vital Conditions for Health and Well-Being is a framework that addresses this question in a way that is at once understandable, relatable, and actionable.

Simply put, vital conditions are the properties of places and institutions that we all need all the time to reach our full potential. They include physical necessities like food, water, and humane housing, but also include things that are harder to quantify, like a sense of belonging and agency or civic muscle. Investments in these conditions are necessary to create an equitable, thriving future for ourselves and for generations to come.

How are the vital conditions different from previous models?

The vital conditions are an evolution, not a replacement, of the social determinants model that has been prevalent since its emergence in the early 2000s.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the social determinants of health as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.”

Vital Conditions vs. Urgent Services

The vital conditions framework enables several important shifts in the way that people think about health and well-being. One of the most important is recognizing the shortcomings of over-reliance on urgent services.

Urgent services are broadly defined as all of the services that anyone under adversity would need to temporarily regain or restore their health and well-being. These include everything from urgent care clinics to food pantries and homeless shelters.

Urgent services are necessary for a safe, healthy, and thriving community. However, existing ways of thinking about health and well-being often lead to over-investing in urgent services and under-investing in vital conditions.

This creates a negative cycle in which the lack of vital conditions creates excess demand for and reliance on these urgent services. Community leaders and institutions in turn often become hyper-focused on providing more urgent services to meet the demand. It is easy to see how this cycle can perpetuate an over-emphasis on urgent services and obscure the need for identifying and improving root causes.

The truth is that no amount of urgent services can ever produce thriving. The vital conditions model provides a framework for communities to break out of this negative cycle and create a better system that supports thriving for all.

What is a Well-Being Portfolio?

The importance of vital conditions becomes even easier to see when combined alongside urgent services in a full well-being portfolio. In times of crisis, urgent services are lifesaving and life-altering. But urgent services cannot produce the experience of thriving. The path to thriving goes through vital conditions. They shape the choices, opportunities, and challenges that we encounter throughout our lives, from birth to death and across generations.

When vital conditions are disrupted or denied, people struggle and suffer, driving demand for urgent services, which in turn diverts even more resources from vital conditions. The best way to escape this downward spiral is through a balanced portfolio of investments in both vital conditions and urgent services.

When stewards from all walks of life are able to negotiate investment priorities across the well-being portfolio, the experience reliably opens space for honest exchange about the legacies we want to pass on to future generations and what it takes for everyone to thrive together—no exceptions.