Date of Award

May 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu

Committee Members

Patricia Stevens, Erica Bornstein, Peninnah Kako, Audrey Tluczek


Child-headed Household, Malawi, Orphan, Subjective Well-being, Vulnerable Children, Youth


Youth-headed households in HIV-endemic sub-Saharan Africa face harsh realities of poverty and loss of parental care. Scientific knowledge of these youth is generally limited to socio-economic and psychological indicators of vulnerability while much less is known about youth-centric meanings of well-being. This is the first known study on the subjective well-being of youth heads of households.

The purpose of this exploratory, youth-centric, qualitative study was to identify experiences of subjective well-being, factors for regulating well-being, and meanings of well-being among youth heads of household in the Thyolo and Chiradzulu districts of rural southern Malawi. The theoretical foundation for this study was Diener's model of subjective well-being and a nursing perspective of health.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted across a convenience sample (n=10) of youth ages 10-21 years. Half of the families had at least one child who was a beneficiary of a local, faith-based, non-governmental organization (NGO) that directed a community-based program for vulnerable children. A focus group of NGO administrators was convened to elicit beliefs about the well-being of vulnerable children.

Narrative analysis revealed that youth rely on a referential framework of virtue for appraisal of their subjective well-being. The language of virtue was useful for understanding health, interpersonal relationships, faith, and goals. Three specific findings emerged: (1) Eight Experiential Contexts of Subjective Well-Being (provision of basic needs, benevolent belonging, experiencing God, growth through adversity, help, hope, intellectual development, and protection), (2) The regulation of subjective well-being as an interactive social process between the virtue-agency of self, others, and God, and actual or potential opportunities, (3) The Integrative Virtue Model of Health and Well-Being, a description of an inferentially-derived meaning of subjective well-being.

This is the first known study to identify virtue as integral to the subjective well-being of youth heads of households. Despite difficult hardships, youth were active agents in promoting their subjective well-being through virtue, maturity of character, and faith. Future research is needed to explore the relationships between virtue, agency, faith, and subjective well-being, among vulnerable youth in low-resource settings of rural Malawi.