Writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, Catherine Bennett is unconvinced that “it is the state’s business to meet those psychological needs” that the Young Foundation’s recent research has highlighted. She suggests that “since no nice person would want to set their face against general wellbeing”, using well-being as a political goal is utterly devoid of meaning. This inadvertently raises a crucial question: what is the overall goal of politics?
Economic growth is the most common headline measure of political success. Combating problems such as poor mental health or income inequality, although dismissed by Bennett, might also be candidates. In fact none of these pass muster in the role of ultimate outcome for societies. When examined closely, it becomes clear that they are all different means to the end of well-being: enabling people to experience their lives going well. As the economist Andrew Oswald has noted:
People have no innate interest in the money supply, inflation, growth, inequality, unemployment … Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier.
Aiming for well-being is not about seeking an “immediate surge in collective pleasure”, as Bennett puts it. It is about a life well lived, not short-term happiness or pleasure seeking. What we do is fundamental to how we feel, and research shows that strong connections to other people and engagement in meaningful activities are among the most important determinants of well-being. This understanding informs our work at nef, where we have demonstrated that well-being outcomes can be robustly and systematically measured through a framework of national accounts of well-being.
There is broad public support for well-being being the ultimate political goal. A 2006 poll for the BBC found that 81% of people supported the idea that the government’s prime objective should be the “greatest happiness” rather than the “greatest wealth”. Furthermore, a sense of well-being is itself a means to traditional policy ends, with proven links, for example, to longer life expectancy and improved health outcomes.
Bennett suggests that it would be “surreal” for policy initiatives to aim to improve well-being. But what is truly surreal is that public policy has often been antithetical to well-being – encouraging long work hours and personal debt, and engendering intense competition from tests at primary school onwards. The evidence shows that our current turbo-charged consumption levels are largely driven by competition for status – a zero-sum activity where for every winner there is a loser.
Focusing on social position through material goods leads to the inescapable treadmill of working longer and harder to buy ever more – at the cost both to well-being and the planet. While some less empathetic members of the public may, as Bennett says, “feel quite happy with current levels of brittleness, inequality and mental ill health”, this is cold comfort to those suffering at the sharp end of these problems. And as evidence from epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson has highlighted, we all suffer under greater levels of inequality, given its associations with crime, low social capital and a host of other undesirable outcomes. There is a clear role here for policy to discourage the excesses of these damaging behaviours.
Fortunately, the evidence from fields such as behavioural economics and positive psychology also points to what enhances experienced well-being. The “five ways to well-being“, distilled by nef from a 2008 government review of the latest scientific evidence in the field, identify well-being-enhancing activities in everyday life. Current policy, directed towards maximising hours spent in paid employment and failing to value non-market activities, hampers people’s ability to get involved in the sorts of community and voluntary activities that offer some of the best opportunities to connect with others, be physically active, take notice of what’s around us, learn new skills, and give. It is not the state’s business to impose such activities on us. But it does have a clear role in establishing the conditions that allow individuals to maximise their own well-being. This is the true yardstick by which political success should be measured.