Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.


The nef/Foresight Five Ways to Well-being seem to be generating plenty of discussion.

It was especially interesting to hear how John Humphrys went straight for the five ways when interviewing Professor John Beddington on Today this morning. Humphrys claimed that our suggestions were a bit obvious and Pollyannaish, and the fact that people weren’t already doing them meant that they had somehow “chosen” not to.

Well, possibly. But if they’re so obvious as to be truisms and are also supported by stacks of empirical evidence, then individual choice looks like an odd explanation. Don’t people want to be happy?

Maybe we should be looking elsewhere. Think about our five suggestions in the context of how most of us live our lives thesedays. Isn’t it striking that we seem to have engineered a socio-economic system that actively limits opportunities for doing the very things that both psychological research and homespun wisdom tells us are good for well-being?

For instance, because our economy systematically fails to value non-market activities like community work and volunteering, while making a fetish of paid employment, “giving back” becomes ever more difficult even though most people say they would like to. Because we are bombarded with advertising messages that trade on making us dissatisfied and telling us all the things we should be aspiring to, savouring the moment and “noticing” is implicitly discouraged and perhaps turns out to be a slightly discomforting experience. The emphasis on individual sovereignty and its attendant me-first model of social relationships crowds-out real “connecting”. And come on, with all the hours we have to work just to pay the mortgage and the credit card bills, who on earth has time to “be active” or “keep learning”?

In a nutshell, perhaps our failure to maximise our own well-being reflects systemic problems rather than revealed preferences.

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