We must not be shallow about wellbeing
The Office for National Statistics has today published the UK’s first annual national wellbeing statistics. And overall, the UK appears to be a nation that is pretty satisfied.
When asked ‘overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ on a scale of 0-10 (0 being the lowest and 10 the highest) the average score was just under 7.5. As we build up more data over time this has the potential to become a more and more useful way of assessing our overall progress as a society – after all, what is a government’s job if not to ensure – so far as it can – the wellbeing of citizens?
Currently, in the policy making process, we assess our progress using measures like an expanding economy (using GDP), how many additional years of ‘good quality’ life people live and how many GCSEs they get. Against the current backdrop of a double dip 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”.
So would policy making look any different if we assessed our progress against wellbeing rather than the measures we currently use? The growing body of international evidence on what drives whether people are satisfied with their lives suggests our priorities may look a little different if we put wellbeing at the forefront. While income and employment and general health would remain priorities, they would be joined by a greater concern for mental health and the quality of our social connections and relationships. A quick look at the data produced by ONS todays indicates these factors prove important here, with unemployed people and those in ill-health reporting lower levels of wellbeing.
While it may feel radical to add wellbeing to our overall frame of reference for assessing progress, we have changed these measures before – after all the GDP measure that so dominates our public debate about how we are doing as a nation has only been around since the 1930s.
But beginning to make wellbeing a central goal in policy making will require committed leadership to drive this change through our established policy making systems. This is a cause that David Cameron has loudly championed since becoming leader of the Conservative Party. This sort of leadership is essential if wellbeing is going to gain real traction – but support cannot stop there, wellbeing will need needs deep roots and more vociferous champions if it is to overcome the inertia of Whitehall.
Over the past few months IPPR North and Carnegie UK Trust have been looking at other places that have sought to make wellbeing central to their approach. We found some cautionary tales as well as some inspiring ones. The most relevant one for today is the cautionary tale of what has happened in France. In 2008 President 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 result, the French equivalent of the ONS, INSEE now produces high quality annual data on French wellbeing. But after a high octane start the debate in France has fizzled: Sarkozy lost interest as short term economic considerations came to dominate and France’s new President shows little interest in this topic. This has been compounded by utter indifference towards the issue from French civil society and the media.
To avoid this fate in the UK, the agenda must avoid being as shallow rooted. Government, opposition, business, trades unions and civil society organisations should use today’s statistics as the basis for a national conversation about what really matters in life. It is only with this sort of cross party and cross sectoral support that wellbeing will embed as a means of monitoring our progress as a nation.
The UK is currently at the vanguard of the debate about how to measure people’s wellbeing. The data published by the ONS today provides us with high quality and detailed measures to work with. The next stage of the debate has to be about how we translate these measures into policy making practice - and broad-based support and strong leadership will be important here. It is only when these measures find their way through into the policy-making process that the policy-makers’ cliché about what you measure being what matters will be true.