A vital shift in priorities
19 Mar 2012 | Mark Williamson
There is a vitally important shift underway in how we think
about progress. Growing numbers of economists, political leaders
and expert commentators are calling for better measures of how well
society is doing; measures that track not just our economic
standard of living, but our overall quality of life. This shift
also mirrors the way many of us are feeling too: that the modern
consumer economy has failed to deliver fair outcomes and fulfilling
In recent decades our lives have become increasingly orientated
in the service of the economy, rather than the other way around.
Yet economic growth is really just a means to an end; it only
matters if it contributes to social progress and human wellbeing.
And the tragedy is that decades of growth and material progress
have failed to deliver a measurable increase in life
When prime minister David Cameron announced that he was asking
the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
to start measuring the UK's national
wellbeing, this was greeted with derision and eye-rolling in the
media. Critics suggested that it was a cynical attempt to
distract us from our economic woes, or simply a waste of money
at a time when there are more important things to
These concerns are understandable, but misplaced. It is of
course difficult to trust a government that claims
a commitment to wellbeing while simultaneously slashing
funding for public services that contribute to it. But to see this
only through a political lens would be to miss the point.
Focusing on wellbeing isn't a distraction, it's about finding
out what will really improve people's lives and then acting on it,
which is surely what good government should be all about?
For the very first time the UK is now officially measuring and valuing
people's subjective feelings about their lives. This isn't some
Orwellian nightmare where we're forced to be happy with our lot; in
fact it's quite the opposite. It is an opportunity for government
to listen to how we're feeling and learn what we value most. Over
time it could lead to a greater focus on initiatives that are
good for people's wellbeing, and recognition that these aren't
always the same as what's good for growing the economy.
So what did we learn from the initial publication of ONS wellbeing data in December 2011?
Despite all the economic doom and gloom, it seems that more than
three quarters of people rated their overall life satisfaction as
seven or more out of ten.
Countries like Denmark and Canada however, consistently score
above eight out of ten for average life satisfaction, so we could
be doing better. More worryingly, 8% of people rated their life
satisfaction as less than 5 out of 10. This is a very low
life satisfaction score, similar to average scores in countries
like Bangladesh and Cambodia.
Most worryingly of all, 27% of the population recorded high
levels of anxiety. Some of this may relate to the economic climate,
but much of it undoubtedly reflects the enormous pressure that
people are under in our increasingly competitive society. Many who
appear successful in outward, material terms are actually suffering
serious emotional and psychological trauma.
Understanding these findings and what drives them should be
a top priority for policy makers. Evidence suggests that
a focus on wellbeing might lead to a greater emphasis on
promoting good mental health; putting economic stability before
economic growth; teaching life skills in schools; and supporting
families in need - particularly young children in their formative
years. For example, at a local level, a council
considering the closure of a library or play area to make way
for a new commercial development might act differently.
But perhaps most importantly, rethinking what we prioritise also
has implications for each of us as individuals. The self-centred
values that have accompanied our quest for economic growth have
encouraged too many of us to put our financial success ahead of
concerns for the wellbeing of our families, our communities and
We too can benefit from a shift in priorities and
a recognition that real happiness is less about what we earn
or own and more about our relationships and state of mind; it's as
much about what we can contribute as what we can get for ourselves.
A happier society starts with each of us.
Getting to a society where as many people as possible are
flourishing and as few people as possible are unhappy, requires
both policy and social change. If politicians are to be criticised,
it should be for failing to improve people's wellbeing not for
wanting to measure it. But let's also recognise that we can all
play our part in helping create a happier society.
Dr Mark Williamson is the director of Action for
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