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Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

nef is on the road to producing a second set of its National Accounts of Well-being, as part of a successful bid to design a 50-item module of well-being questions on a prestigious European survey.

The original National Accounts of Well-being, published in January 2009, produced headline measures of personal and social well-being for 22 countries across Europe. The indicators and their constituent elements were made available for full interactive exploration on www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org. The results showed that Denmark, Switzerland and Norway had the highest levels of overall well-being, with the UK ranked 13th out of 22 on personal well-being and 15th on social well-being.

The data behind these results came from a specially designed module on the third round of the European Social Survey (ESS), a major survey of over 40,000 people across Europe. The module was designed by a cross-national team of experts from across Europe, led by Professor Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge and including the Founder of the centre for well-being at nef, Nic Marks. Together with two other members of the original team, Professor Johannes Siegrist of the University of Dusseldorf and Professor Joar Vittersø of the University of Tromsø, and new member Professor Carmelo Vázquez of Complutense University of Madrid, we have now won the opportunity to design a repeat of the well-being module to be included in the sixth round of the ESS.

The new well-being module will repeat many of the original questions, which will allow ground-breaking analysis of detailed changes in well-being over time between participating European countries. In addition, the successful bid outlines the team’s intention to explore a number of new questions, including further measures of engagement, social well-being, and participation in activities described by our evidence-based Five Ways to Well-being.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

‘ “Want to grab some lunch?” ask a couple of colleagues as they walk past your desk’. This is the unconventional opening of the excellent MINDSPACE report on influencing behaviour through public policy, here taking its own advice in making information seem relevant to the people at whom it is aimed (in this case, civil servants designing policy).

Commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published earlier this year by the Institute for Government, MINDSPACE is a mnemonic for nine key influences on behaviour which should be given attention in the policy-making process. Drawn from the extensive literature on what influences our behaviour, MINDSPACE sets out that: we are heavily affected by the Messenger delivering information; respond to Incentives through shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses; we are influenced by the Norms of what others do; go with the flow of Defaults; we are drawn to Salient information and Primed by sub-conscious cues; are strongly influenced by Affect, that is, our emotional experiences; seek to be consistent to the public Commitments we make and act in ways which make us feel better about ourselves and thus protect our Ego.

The report contains lots of illuminating examples showing how these influences can be and have been used in designing policy. It also makes two very important observations about policy making as a whole. First, that

whether we like it or not, the actions of policymakers, public service professionals, markets and our fellow citizens around us have big, and often unintended, impacts on our behaviour. ‘Doing nothing’ is never a neutral option

This is of key relevance to those of us advocating a well-being led approach to policy-making. While we are often accused of wanting policy to overly interfere in people’s lives, in fact, given that all policy affects behaviour, it is also very likely to affect how people experience their lives. So policy-makers should see themselves as having to ensure that the effects they create through their policy decisions are postive rather than negative to well-being overall.

The second key observation is that

Government needs to understand the ways it may be changing the behaviour of citizens unintentionally…some priming effects work in surprising ways.

For me, this is an excellent summary of the reasons why nef advocates using well-being measures as ultimate indicators of society’s progress. When government focuses its energies on the growth of the country’s GDP, we are thereby primed to behave as though economic factors are the most important influence on our personal well-being, although the evidence, and much of our ‘folk knowledge’, suggests otherwise. By concentrating instead on the well-being outcomes of its policies, government could help us all to improve our own well-being by prioritising what really matters.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

TED, the organisers of high profile conferences devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ have just announced the line up for next month’s TEDGlobal 2010, which includes not one, but two nef Fellows.  Nic Marks, Founder of nef‘s centre for well-being and creator of the Happy Planet Index will be taking the stage in Oxford in the opening session of the conference, on 13 July, followed two day’s later by nef fellow Tim Jackson, author of the ground-breaking Prosperity Without Growth. Other speakers  include David McCandless, author of the Information Is Beautiful blog, architect David Adjaye, and singer Annie Lennox, talking about her work on HIV/AIDS.

If you’ve never visited the TED site, its back catalogue of talks by a dazzling array of speakers from previous conferences is highly recommended viewing. A few gems from the all-time favourites category include Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity, Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice, Dan Gilbert on what makes us happy, and Hans Rosling in the most spectacular talk on statistics in the whole world, ever.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Officer and blogmaster.

There are two rather encouraging things about Julian Huppert, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. First of all, he’s got a Ph.D in biological chemistry, making him one of the few MPs with experience of science and hence a likely advocate of heeding scientific warnings on climate change and other environmental issues, no matter how inconvenient to politics. Second, Huppert’s maiden speech to the House of Commons yesterday contained these wise words:

…economic growth is not all that we should care about. We know that economic growth can lead to environmental damage, but the issue is broader than just that trade-off. We are too fixated on GDP, and make too much of whether it has gone up or down by 0.2%. It does not measure the things we ought to care about – education, health, or well-being. If there is an oilspill off the coast, which we then clear up, more or less well, GDP has increased, but I’m not sure any of us would be delighted with that outcome.

We need to focus more broadly on personal issues such as well-being and happiness. We need to develop rigorous metrics to measure this wellbeing throughout society, and then ensure that we bear them in mind when developing policy. For we already know a lot about well-being – it doesn’t change much with income, above a figure of around 7,000 pounds per annum. It changes with the quality of the environment, with the number of friends and other social bonds we have, with the activities we get involved in, with family and with community.

His words bring to mind those of Robert F. Kennedy, the celebrated US Senator and civil rights activist, when he addressed the University of Kansas in 1968. In fact, it was Kennedy’s words that inspired nef to develop National Accounts of Well-being, the first comprehensive international analysis of personal and social well-being. In other words, exactly the kind of rigorous metrics that Dr Huppert rightly calls for.

Saamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.

It’s been rumbling for almost three years and it may well still rumble on for a little longer, but a little volcano may soon erupt in the tiny nation of… well, Luxembourg.  The European Statistics Agency Eurostat last week declared public the outputs of a project we and others have been carrying out for them for two years on how to measure the well-being of people in Europe. The project will form the basis of a new set of well-being indicators to be published by Eurostat on a regular basis, alongside drier indicators on R&D expenditure, fishing boat stocks and, of course, GDP.

This might not seem like a volcano, but it could potentially be a huge fillip to the case for measuring progress differently – Eurostat have the resources and wherewithal to collect robust regular data across Europe. Collecting data obviously won’t change the world alone, but it’s a prerequisite to actually using data, and to supporting well-being as a public policy goal.

Over the next few months, Eurostat will be busying itself making sure well-being data meets their demanding standards and, implementing changes in conjunction with other parts of the European apparatus, member states and survey teams. A geeky success, but an important one nevertheless…


Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Officer and blogmaster.

Juliet and Saamah’s letter to the Times today points some of the misconceptions in last Saturday’s leading article on well-being economics. And there’s plenty more that they could have said, given enough space. For example, the leader argues that

There is more to life than [happiness]. There are many forms of life — monastic devotion, public service, freedom fighter — in which the pursuit of happiness is a subsidiary value, if it appears at all.

As someone who counts among his friends several public servants, a handful of people who you might call freedom fighters and one monk, I find this suggestion rather strange. Why shouldn’t happiness figure as major part of their lives?

It depends, of course, how you define happiness. The Times seems to equate it with pleasant feelings and positive emotions, what the philosopher Owen Flanagan calls the ‘standard American’ or ‘joy-joy-click-your-heels’ understanding of happiness. But anyone working in the field of positive psychology or well-being economics knows that positive feelings are only one minor part of a much broader and well-established definition of happiness, which includes finding meaning in work and daily activities, good relationships with others, inner resilience, individual vitality and a feeling of autonomy and freedom. There’s no reason why this deeper understanding of happiness, or rather well-being, shouldn’t figure in the types of vocation mentioned in the article.

After all, nef fellow and psychologist Tim Kasser and his colleague Malte Klar recently published a paper outlining the well-being benefits of engaging in political activism and campaigning. They found that

in both college student and national samples, well-being was higher to the extent people self identified as an activist, expressed commitment to the activist role, and reported engaging or intending to engage in activist behaviors. Results were similar across measures of hedonic well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and positive affect), eudaimonic well-being (e.g., personal growth, purpose in life, vitality), and social well-being (e.g., social integration). The results of both studies also suggest that activists are more likely to experience the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, an indicator of more frequent experiences of intrinsic motivation. Both Studies 1 and 2 also showed that significantly larger percentages of activists met preexisting criteria for “human flourishing” (Keyes, 2002) than did those less engaged in activism.

It seems that freedom fighters can be happy after all.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.


Sir,

We agree that when making policy, a broad account of flourishing — including autonomy, meaningful activities and strong relationships — is more useful than a narrow focus on happiness, which risks denoting merely momentary or passing pleasures (“The end of government”, leading article, Mar 27). But given the wide range of influences on our experiences of life, government policy — however it is shaped — will inescapably affect our wellbeing, for good or for ill.

This is very far from “forcing people to be happy”. The findings of an established body of research suggest that current policy, focused beyond all else on stimulating economic growth, crowds out from daily life the activities known to lead to wellbeing: connecting with others, learning new skills or giving our time.

Gauging government success, according to National Accounts of Well-being, would provide the incentives to create policy firmly focused on improving the lives of UK citizens. Our research, first published last year, shows how wellbeing, understood as a multifaceted, dynamic concept, could be robustly and systematically measured.

The inventors of gross domestic product (GDP) never intended it to become the compass that guides all policymaking. Today’s environmental crisis makes the shortcomings of GDP all too clear: it rises when forests are cut down or when money is spent cleaning up an oil slick. With both our natural and social support systems being pushed to breaking point, finding a better measure of progress has never been more urgent.

Juliet Michaelson and Saamah Abdallah
Centre for Wellbeing
nef (the new economics foundation)

Bookmark and ShareJody Aked is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Before a room of 150 planners, architects, engineers, and developers who gathered on Wednesday night at the Building Centre in central London, nef set out the key ideas in its latest report Good Foundations: towards a low carbon, high well-being built environment.

The places and spaces we create form the back-drop of our everyday lives, providing a visual marker of the values that we live by. So why is it that we have ended up with a development model for the built environment so disconnected from those things in life that really matter? Sunand Prasad, immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, reflected that ‘the metrics of success have been too narrow’, while journalist Anna Minton explained that ‘we have lost a notion of the public good, both conceptually and literally’. Both accounts indicate that the priorities of decision makers are somehow out of touch with the things that make the biggest difference to our lives, now and in the future. In particular, the preoccupation with short-term financial returns has meant that we have increasingly treated our houses and public spaces as commodities to be traded, rather than things of inherent value that contribute to our individual and collective well-being.

As efforts to patch up the current financial system continue, and investment into development projects begins to regain momentum, Good Foundations calls for a development model that is fit for purpose. As Stewart Wallis, Executive Director of nef, emphasised, the stakes are high. Today’s challenges – climate change, spatial inequality, low levels of trust and belonging, weak local economies and poor housing quality, require a pro-active response in re-thinking an alternative vision of successful development, which balances social, economic and environmental value with financial return.

But how do we incorporate a broader definition of value that properly takes into account the drivers of people’s well-being into the way we plan, design and develop our neighbourhoods? Good Foundations, sets out a proposition – that when, in 20 years time, we examine the results of our efforts today, our markers of success should be neighbourhoods that promote two key outcomes. These are:

  • place Happiness, the personal, social and economic well-being of their inhabitants, and
  • place Sustainability, which arises from minimising the environmental impact throughout both the construction process and lifetime of a building or place.

The aim of Good Foundations, the final report of a project funded by the Happold Trust, was always to stimulate the beginnings of a cultural shift in the built environment sector. During last night’s discussions, comments from the audience were reassuringly ambitious. In thinking about the report’s final recommendation to test and develop the mechanisms we propose in practice, it was suggested that a sustainable well-being approach should be applied to large infrastructural projects including the development of zero carbon neighbourhoods and large-scale retrofit projects.

Recognition in the sector of the interdependence of well-being and sustainability is critical, not least because the built environment influences all of us when it comes to the choices and decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. As last night proved, the enthusiasm for a genuinely new way of doing things is there. The burning question that remains is: where will the UK’s first low carbon, high well-being neighbourhood be?

Letter to the Financial Times, Friday 26 February.

Sir, The Institute of Directors claims (report, February 23) that the UK could not cope with the European Union’s proposal to increase paid maternity leave. But there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the UK’s public finances and economy could benefit from more investment in the early years of childhood.

The UK currently spends £161bn a year tackling preventable social problems that arise from disadvantaged childhoods, including crime, obesity, mental illness and family breakdown: far more than any other country in Europe. The UK is also ungenerous on parental leave: despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the European Union, the UK spends only 0.11 per cent of gross domestic product on parental leave, offers no statutory pay at a full-time equivalent rate and allows fathers to take only two weeks’ paid leave.

Countries that invest in provisions for early childhood, including full-time equivalent paid parental leave and universal childcare, tend to have far fewer social problems, and therefore save money on public services. Finland offers both parents 35 weeks of fully paid leave each and spends 0.81 per cent of GDP on parental leave, but it spends less than a quarter of what the UK does on coping with social problems per head of capita.

The EU proposals also have positive implications for gender equality. Countries that offer more paid parental leave also have a greater percentage of women participating in the labour market, who find it easier to balance family commitments with working life.

Contrary to what the IoD thinks, more paid parental leave would not leave businesses and the state “picking up the bill”, but would deliver real long-term savings, a stronger and more cohesive society and, most important of all, happier, healthier childhoods. Investing in children would be good for us all.

Jody Aked
Nicola Steuer
Eilís Lawlor
nef (the new economics foundation)
London SE11, UK

Bookmark and ShareAnna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef.

Imagine a new ‘standard’ working week of 21 hours.  Not 35 hours, or a four-day week, but 21 hours or its equivalent spread across the calendar year.

How would it feel to wake up on a chilly February morning? More time in bed, more time with the kids, more time to read, see your mum, hang out with friends, repair the guttering, make music, fix lunch, walk in the park.  Whatever you need or want to do.

Economist John Maynard Keynes hoped that by 2000, we'd be working 15 hour weeks.

Outlandish? Well, it’s less radical than the vision of John Maynard Keynes. He imagined a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century, because he thought we’d no longer have to work long hours to satisfy our material needs.

His forecast was wrong, not least because our definition of material needs has grossly expanded. In fact, the ‘normal’ working week lengthened in the last decades of the 20th century, with two-adult households adding six hours a week to their combined paid workload.  Many of us work longer and harder to earn enough to buy what we need (or think we need), to keep or improve our place in the world, or simply to make ends meet.  Meanwhile, others have too little employment, or none at all.

But Keynes was right to envisage a need to think differently about how we use and value time.  In the 21st century, moving towards much shorter hours of paid employment could be a critical factor in heading off environmental, social and economic catastrophe.  In the developed world, most of us are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us.

Economic growth has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption.  So workers have borrowed to consume what they cannot afford and now the credit bubble has burst.  Politicians are urging us all to shop harder to help the economy recover and grow. Yet natural resources are critically depleted by high-rolling consumerism and the climate clock is ticking. While some of us accumulate more and more material goods, others have less and less of life’s essentials.

We have even managed in our increasingly unequal society to divvy up time as an unequal commodity. Under-employment as well as unemployment is prevalent in low-income groups. Nearly 2.5 million are currently unemployed. Nearly one million worked part-time in the third quarter of 2009, because they could not find a full-time job, a rise of 30,000 over the previous quarter and up 30 per cent since the 2008.

A more equal distribution of working time would have clear environmental benefits. Leading economists are turning their attention to how we can manage with little or no economic growth, on the ground that continuing growth in the developed world cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently or in time to avoid disastrous climate change. Tim Jackson, Peter Victor and others have identified shorter working hours as one way to reduce labour and output overall without intensifying hardship or widening inequalities: share out the total of paid work more evenly across the population.

A 21-hour working week is a long way from today’s standard of 40 hours or more, but not so far-fetched when you consider the infinitely varied ways in which we actually spend our time.  On average, people of working age spend 19.6 hours a week in paid employment and 20.4 hours in unpaid housework and childcare.  Of course these averages mask huge inequalities, both between women and men and between income groups – not only in how they use their time, but also in how far they can control it.  Bringing the standard nearer to the average could help to iron out these differences.

Moving towards a standard of 21 hours could help to redistribute unpaid as well as paid time – for example by making more jobs available for the unemployed and giving men more time to look after their children.

There’s nothing natural or inevitable about our nine-to-five, five-day week. It’s just a relic of the industrial revolution. It can be changed. When the state of Utah in the US introduced a four-day week for state employees (without reduced hours, but giving everyone a three-day weekend), more than half said they were more productive and three-quarters said they preferred the new arrangements. The State saved $4.1 million through reduced absenteeism and overtime and $1.4 million through reduced travel in state-owned vehicles; it reduced carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons, other greenhouse gases by 8,000 tons and petrol consumption by 744,000 gallons. 82 per cent of employees said they wanted the one-year experiment to continue.

We could get off the consumer treadmill and leave a smaller footprint on the earth.  We could spend less on energy-intensive ‘convenience’ items designed to save us time – from processed foods and household gadgets to cars and airline tickets. We’d have more time to care for friends and family, and to look after our own health.  We could leave employment and claim our pensions later, with a much gentler transition to retirement. We’d have more time to keep learning and take part in local activities. We might begin to reassess how we value different kinds of work, regardless of whether or how it is paid.  We might give a higher rating to relationships, pastimes and places that absorb less of our money and more of our time.

There could be benefits for business too, with more women in paid employment, more men leading rounded, balanced lives, less workplace stress and greater productivity hour for hour.  The driving force towards a prosperous economy would no longer be credit-fuelled consumerism, which has proved so destructive, but financial stability and good work distributed fairly across the population.

None of this will be easy to achieve. A lot of people will have to adjust to earning a lot less, but this has to be seen as part of a bigger transition, over a decade or more, that will involve a radical shift in values and expectations.  . Everything depends on having the right measures in place to ensure that work is fairly distributed, that everyone has enough to live on, that employers are encouraged to take on more staff, and that public attitudes change to support less materialist lifestyles and a revaluation of paid and unpaid time.  These are explored in more detail in our report, 21 Hours.

Social norms that seem to be firmly fixed can sometimes change quite suddenly.  Take, for example, attitudes towards slavery and votes for women, wearing seatbelts and crash helmets, not smoking in bars and restaurants.  The weight of public opinion can swing from antipathy to routine acceptance, usually when there’s a combination of new evidence, changing conditions, a sense of crisis and a strong campaign.  This proposal for a 21-hour working week is intended as a provocation, to stimulate debate and ideas.  It also reflects an urgent need to build a sustainable future.  We already have strong supporting evidence, changing conditions that demand a fresh approach and a profound sense of crisis.  The campaign starts here.

21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century by Anna Coote, Andrew Simms and Jane Franklin was published on Saturday 13 February 2010.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.