Higher wellbeing is embraced by researchers and politicians as a better goal for society than GDP growth. Until now, it has been mainly centre-right governments that have pushed this agenda in Europe – from Nicolas Sarkozy to David Cameron and Angela Merkel. The United Arab Emirates recently appointed a “happiness minister”. Is “wellbeing” used as a new goal to make people forget about injustice and inequalities?
Jon Cruddas MP chaired the UK Labour party’s internal policy review ahead of the 2015 elections. He has no doubt that well-being will play a larger role in politics – and can be used by both the right and the left.
“I would give credit to David Cameron for putting wellbeing on the political agenda in the UK. The Conservatives grabbed it partly to decontaminate their own brand and brought it into government offices in 2010. We on the left have been lagging behind. We must catch-up, because talk about wellbeing provides a deeper texture to the debate about equality and justice. It is not just about economics, it is also about mental health, access to justice or simply having a voice in democracy” he told me in an interview.
A wellbeing agenda can obviously be captured by ideas reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The Legatum Institute’s 2014 report “Wellbeing and policy” emphasizes the availability of psychological treatment as a policy priority – not the fight against economic inequality.
Yet, enhancing wellbeing offers a better avenue for environmental and social progress, at least in affluent societies, than the goal of economic growth simply because (i) wellbeing can be more directly linked to social progress and (ii) there is far more empirical evidence for absolute decoupling of wellbeing growth from ecological footprints than for decoupling of GDP growth from such footprints.
To avoid a “Brave New World capture” of wellbeing, one comes a long way by keeping in mind the three dimensions of subjective wellbeing recommended by the OECD: Life evaluation (often measured through questions on life satisfaction), affect (“happiness”) and eudaimonia (“meaning in life”).
In affluent societies, life evaluation and eudaimonia are both positively correlated with pro-social values (such as universalism, benevolence and self-direction in Schwartz’ value typology). As recent work by Common Cause Foundation also finds, life evaluation is also correlated with a more accurate grasp of other people’s value priorities.
This is why we should use pro-social values as a compass to steer a wellbeing policy agenda: The content and framing of policies should reflect pro-social values: building on the priority that most people already place on these values, re-affirming this priority, and conveying a wider appreciation of the importance that typical fellow-citizens place on them
In practice, there are two answers on how to design such a policy agenda.
First, a focus on content: for example, greater economic equality, better public health services available to all, shortening normal working hours, constraining advertising or clamping down on consumption loans.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, there is an answer that lies in policy process: A wellbeing policy agenda must be based on a strengthening of democracy. In post-war Western Europe, large political projects mobilised people broadly – such as public health services, sanitation and education. Though GDP growth resulted from this, the pursuit of economic growth was not the driving force behind such public policies. Better lives were. Yet, since the 1960s we have not managed to identify political projects that mobilize people broadly enough, whilst an economic surplus can always be bigger. Thus, the political vacuum of affluent societies is increasingly filled by “economism”, with GDP growth as the overall guiding star. To fill this vacuum with something else, we need encouragement to reflect more about where we want society to go.
Convenience and market forces can take us to the supermarket several times a week, where we naturally act as consumers. We are less often reminded to act as citizens – most of us only at elections. Thus, a more participatory democracy should be part and parcel of a wellbeing policy agenda: We need to find ways of deepening people’s participation – for example through referenda designed to make clear and informed choices, more participatory budgeting, or the drawing-of-lots to appoint people to public offices.
But what if people vote, for example, for building new roads, rather than protecting green space?
Generally, this is not what happens. In participatory budgeting around the world, projects that make urban spaces greener and more human typically win – not new parking lots. Binding results of Switzerland’s popular initiative referenda include large railway investments to reduce road traffic and curbs on executive pay.
I believe that as public participation in decision-making deepens, public commitment to social and environmental policies strengthens. Perhaps part of the reason that a majority of people in the UK voted for Brexit was precisely because – particularly in a first-past-the-post political system – people protested against the difficulties of making their voices heard. Those disappointed by the recent rise of populist politics in the US, UK and elsewhere, should see the lesson as being the need to widen opportunities for direct and participatory democracy – not restrict them.