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Measuring wellbeing relies on leadership to allow our society's happiness to flourish

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2012

Jennifer Wallace, policy manager at Carnegie UK Trust, explores the wellbeing agenda.

The concept of ‘wellbeing’ provides us with a path towards addressing many of society’s often complex problems; however, to ensure our wellbeing is measured sufficiently, and indeed catered for correctly, we must first have the right leadership to guide the nation to where it needs to be.

Last month we were met with the UK’s first ‘state of the nation’ report to measure our society’s wellbeing and happiness. Rather surprisingly, we were told that the recession hasn’t affected our happiness, despite the fact that a higher proportion of people are unemployed, with particular impact on our young people. We were also informed that over three-quarters of people are generally satisfied with their life, and over 70% of us are satisfied with our health. On a less positive note, we are also told that almost two-thirds of us experience anxiety.

However, in light of a relatively encouraging report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), it is important that the Government, who instructed ONS to conduct the research, is listening to the findings presented to them and using these to develop policies aimed at improving people’s wellbeing.

For many years organisations such as the Carnegie UK Trust have been arguing that what governments choose to measure is what matters to them, and subsequently what gets delivered. If the wrong things are measured, due to lack of good data or sometimes force of habit, we orientate our services towards these measures instead of what really matters to society.

The prime example of this is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which countries use as the central measure of prosperity despite wellknown flaws in the data. Against the current backdrop of a prolonged recession, economic measures like GDP seem to trump all others. But as Robert Kennedy said of GDP, while it is useful, it measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile”.

In 2008, France’s then president Nicolas Sarkozy raised the profile of the wellbeing debate and gave it legitimacy by establishing a Commission on Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz. As a direct result, in 2010 David Cameron asked the ONS to come up with a way of measuring wellbeing, including people’s own assessment of their wellbeing and satisfaction with their lives. This data is now in the public domain and will be pored over by academics and a niche group of interested stakeholders.

The next stage of the debate for our nation has to be about how we translate wellbeing measures into policy making.

To better understand how others approach wellbeing measurement, the Carnegie UK Trust and IPPR North carried out a series of study visits to learn from international experience in our recent report ‘Shifting the Dial’. The research involved study trips to three nations – France, the USA and Canada – who between them have been measuring wellbeing in different ways, from academic and third sector projects, to local government up to national governments.

Importantly, we found that in order to move from collecting and analysing data into real policy change, the wellbeing agenda needs to ‘stand on more than one leg’. It often originates from a leader with a desire to do things differently but in France it was clear that this interest was unsustainable once President Sarkozy had left office. In order to support it, the movement requires the active involvement of community organisations who can feed into the process.

The final ‘leg’ is of public awareness and interest. Where wellbeing measures were most successful, they were often used to spark a public debate about what matters to people.

The Canadian Index, for example, was used by journalists to explore whether economic growth is the be-all-and-end-all. This can be contrasted with the debate in the UK that has been characterised as a human interest story on ‘where in the UK are people happiest’, rather than a deeper discussion on government policy.

If we were to take the data from the ONS report and put it to use in developing policies it would suggest that government policy focuses on: reversing the trend on youth unemployment; improving education, particularly adult education; reducing anxiety to improve overall mental health; and continuing to improve healthy life expectancy, which has a significant impact on our overall wellbeing.

As we found, adopting a serious approach to promoting wellbeing requires changes to conventional policy-making processes; it requires joined up working. There are ‘green shoots’ of this type of activity in the UK, like the proposal that the Department for Work and Pensions will strengthen the link between Job Centres and mental health services to ensure unemployed people have the best possible chance at getting back into the workplace.

But there is a real risk here. Our international case studies show that when a leader loses interest, the wellbeing agenda can flounder. When the ONS data was released, no official comment was made by David Cameron. Without leadership to drive through change, we will be left with some good quality new data that is ultimately not of use, simply because it hasn’t been acted upon.

Carnegie UK Trust is an independent endowed charitable trust that seeks to improve the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the UK and Ireland through influencing public policy and demonstrating innovative practice.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at [email protected]


Alan Goodchild   15/05/2013 at 12:03

How sad it is that no-one has commented on this article in over six months. Given the stress that growth has placed upon the ecology it is imperative that we think about alternative ways of gaining contentment than consuming more and more material things. The market economy works by selling commodities to people to satisfy their wants and needs. Consequently, contentment is a problem because you can't sell anything to people who are already happy. That is why producers spend so much time and money making people feel unhappy about themselves- about their body shape, the whiteness of their laundry, their teeth, hair not bouncy enough, inadequate ring tone... Creating unhappiness and then producing things to cure it results in a net zero increase in economic benefit but uses resources and creates waste, emissions and pollution which then require more production and resources to deal with them. This is not logical but it is profitable. It therefore adds to the happiness of business owners if no-one else. Add to this the amount of advertising used to generate wants that did not exist and the resources then wasted in satisfying them. Then add the colossal resources devoted to the zero-sum activity of persuading people to have brand x insurance, energy, soap powder or bank account instead of the rivals'. This creates nothing except anxiety that you are missing out or have been conned- which sometime you have. Then you can start to appreciate the amount of resources wasted without adding to net happiness. What capitalism needs is for people driven to work hard producing the needless to earn the money to purchase the needless. Look at its reaction to the hippy movement or new age travellers. People who are content with less are a threat. So are you and I, Jennifer. Whether we realise it or not, we are a threat to the system and following the happiness agenda to its logical conclusion is nothing short of revolutionary. Hence David Cameron's reluctance to comment. His objective is not the happiness of people but of his people. The general reluctance to comment is due to a sub-conscious realisation that embracing the happiness agenda undermines society and that worries people.

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