Bookmark and ShareSaamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.

2010 looks set to be a key year for well-being. Just over ten years ago, whilst well-being made sense in the scientific community, it was still almost unheard of amongst policy-makers. Since then, however, we’ve had policy documents recognising the importance of well-being from many departments from Defra to the Treasury. The end of 2009 saw two other think tanks, Demos and the Young Foundation, using the language of well-being. The Department of Health’s New Horizons strategy boldly puts well-being at the heart of mental health. nef act as secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on well-being, the UK government is set to fund a major new centre for well-being research, and the Office of National Statistics is starting to explore how they can measure well-being. Meanwhile, whilst the Chinese welcome the year of the tiger, the City of Liverpool has declared 2010 the ‘year of health and wellbeing’.

However, to paraphrase the wise words of Yazz, given the concept’s earlier obscurity, ‘the only way was up’. Ten years on and well-being is no longer seen as a cute side-policy, and is becoming an issue for heated discussion. Some writing in the national media suggest a backlash. Some people read well-being as simply happiness and therefore consider it hedonistic and silly. Or there is a fear that encouraging people to be happy may just be a way to silence the masses without actually improving their lives.  Or there are concerns over whether it can genuinely be measured. Or a feeling that affecting people’s emotions should not be within governments’ remit.

Some of these concerns are easily dismissed. We know that well-being can be measured robustly and meaningfully (see, for example, last year’s National Accounts of Well-Being, and the New Scientist). Also, as the National Accounts of Well-being stress, well-being is not just about happiness or satisfaction. It is a dynamic and multi-dimensional concept embracing, amongst other things, our social relations, vitality, and sense of meaning. Seeing Government’s role as supporting well-being for everyone does not imply a belief that government should keep everyone happy all the time.  Being upset because you have failed a job interview is natural and healthy. It is when this then leads to long-term depression, or when our lives are defined by our job interviews, that we need to worry.

Worthy of more thought is the response that, even if well-being is important, and we can measure it, government should not be meddling with our well-being. This is where the science of well-being needs to mature into a politics of well-being. It would indeed be unsavoury for the government to be making people happy, especially if this is solely through positive psychology tricks that ignore root causes of low well-being, such as inequality and bad jobs. But in the same way that their current focus on economic growth does not lead to governments forcing us to get rich, a focus on well-being would not lead to forced happiness. Rather it would just mean that, in making a policy decision, government would give greatest weight to likely impacts on well-being (in all its multi-dimensionality), rather than just its impacts on GDP – which is what tends to happen. For example, a reduction in working hours is considered crazy as it would lead to reduced economic activity. However, if it were seen to lead to observable improvements in well-being, even despite reducing our national income, isn’t it actually a good idea? To be able to make such decisions, government needs an evidence base on how policies impact well-being. Growing this evidence base is the challenge for 2010, and nef’s forthcoming work will be a key step on this path. Watch this space.