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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…
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)
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.
Although you wouldn’t have known it from the media coverage at the time, President Sarkozy did something far more remarkable in January 2008 than get engaged to the singer and model Carla Bruni. While angry French leftists were burning Bruni’s CDs on public bonfires, her new fiancé announced his intention to challenge our most intractable economic orthodoxy: Gross Domestic Product.
Soon enough, the President had set up an impressive commission of Nobel Prize-winning economists and social scientists to address the question of how to move beyond GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress. The group was to be led by former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, and would include development guru Amartya Sen, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the economist-turned-climate-change-hero Lord Stern.
A year and a half on and the Commission has published its final report. The vision is bold – it recognises that “new political narratives are necessary to identify where our societies should go” and advocates “a shift of emphasis from a ‘production-oriented’ measurement system to one focused on the well-being of current and future generations”. Specifically, it recommends that governments should measure subjective well-being – people’s experience of their quality of life – and recognises that these should be textured and multi-dimensional.
These calls are admirable, and echo what nef has long been calling for, particularly in our National Accounts of Well-being report from January 2009.
But there’s a problem. The report carries many recommendations, and there’s a risk that politicians will latch onto the easier ones, without really taking home the big message: namely, that we need to radically shake up our understanding of progress and success. For example, the report shies away from suggesting an overall measure of progress, such as nef’s Happy Planet Index, leading to the risk that GDP will remain unchallenged as the de facto indicator of overall success, despite it never being intended that way.
But for now the Commission, and indeed, dare we say it, Sarkozy, deserve plenty of praise for their boldness. Let’s see if he and other politicians put into practice the advice they are given by the world’s best economists: to move beyond GDP and measure well-being.
International meetings of statisticians are hardly the most likely place for one to find passion and drama. Yet, in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, home to one of the major banking families of the 13th century, Juliet Michaelson and I took part in a debate which could be changing how we measure progress.
When nef started advocating subjective measures of well-being – i.e. asking people how they feel their life is going – as a tool to guide policy, we were entering almost virgin territory. But it seems that the world of government statistics has started to catch up with projects such as our Happy Planet Index. Subjective well-being is part of official statistics in several countries including New Zealand, Canada and even the UK. nef is currently advising Eurostat, the EU’s official statistics body on the feasibility of including well-being indicators in their official sets. And the OECD is the unlikely home of a major Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, championed until now by the organisation’s Chief Statistician, Enrico Giovannini.
It was the OECD that arranged the meeting aimed to encourage chief national statisticians to take subjective well-being measurement seriously. Chief statisticians and presidents from the statistics offices of the USA, Canada, Ireland, Spain and many other countries were present. The meeting was timed to follow on the heels of the ninth annual conference of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS), ensuring many of the leading academics working on subjective well-being were also present.
The meeting showed that there was still work to be done. Many statisticians recognise that measuring subjective well-being is a central part of informing governments how well they are doing. They also see the benefits that subjective data provide in terms of understanding other areas. For example, well-being data can tell you something about the impacts of high or low social capital in an area. Academics such as Prof. John Heliwell at the University of British Columbia in Canada made a plea for statisticians to include a few subjective well-being questions in as many different surveys as possible. Meanwhile nef, alongside Prof. Felicia Huppert at the University of Cambridge, called for more textured measures of well-being, such as the National Accounts of Well-Being, so as to provide policy makers with a better understanding of the ways in which the nation’s population is doing well or not so well.
Some statisticians, howeever, were still very resistant to the idea of taking up precious ‘real estate’ on their surveys with questions about how people feel. They argue that they measure what they are told to, and that they are not being told to measure well-being. As Dr. Munir Sheikh, Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada put it, “It’s not my job to decide which data is more important. It’s the users.” Other statisticians disagreed, highlighting that statistics offices do have some flexibility to pre-empt data requests. Meanwhile, the academics argued that there is a chicken-and-egg situation: government bodies will not ask for well-being data until statistics offices collect it, and vice versa.
But, perhaps, for the sake of statisticians such as Dr. Sheikh, it is important that we make it clear that well-being is important. A recent UK poll found that 81% of people supported the idea that the Government’s prime objective should be the ‘greatest happiness’ rather than the ‘greatest wealth’. Given that’s the case, and given that statistics offices are public bodies whose duty it is to provide information to citizens on how our Government is faring, perhaps we all need to tell them just how much we’d like to know the state of well-being in our countries.
Much of the happiness and well-being research that you read about is based on answers to very simple self-report questions: How satisfied are you with your life overall? How happy have you been recently? How often have you felt miserable in the last two weeks? and so on.
Reliance on these kinds of measures has sometimes led to criticism. But there has always been plenty of evidence that even such apparently simplistic self-report questions can be potent indicators of physical and psychological well-being. A striking example is this new study, which tracked older adults over a five year period.
Those with self-reported depression [rating of agreement with the statement: “I felt depressed”] had a 5-year mortality of 30.2% versus 19.7% in those without self-reported depression […] . This association persisted after adjustment for age, sex, education, functional status, and cognition
Subjective indicators will never tell the whole story and, as we set-out at some length in our National Accounts of Well-being, policy makers need to use multiple measures to truly understand how people feel and function in their lives and so make better decisions. But every now and again it’s nice to reconfirm that self-reported measures of well-being really do map-on to “hard” outcomes, and in a useful way.
In making the case for the regular collection of national level statistics on population well-being, our National Accounts of Well-being report highlighted the interesting model provided by the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index. This is a survey which since January 2008 has conducted 1000 interviews almost every day of the year across the United States to produce detailed well-being data on a daily basis. As a privately-sponsored survey, the full dataset is not publicly available, but a new website allows the data collected in 2008 to be explored at state- and congressional district-level .
The approach to conceptualising and measuring well-being is somewhat different to our own: while our National Accounts of Well-being were based on seven key components of personal and social well-being, the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index is built up of six domains of well-being. There are some similarities, with two of the Gallup-Healthways domains being built on measures of emotional health and evaluations of life as a whole, mirroring our emotional well-being and satisfying life components. But, in part reflecting the healthcare industry sponsorship of the survey, the domains also expand beyond subjective well-being to measure physical health, healthy behaviour, work environment and basic needs and services. It’s a useful point of comparison to our National Accounts of Well-being, and will help frame the debate about exactly which elements of population well-being it is most useful to systematically measure. It also demonstrates the growing recognition, in the private sector as well as in government and policy circles, of the value of rigorously collected population well-being statistics.
Although it might be called a ‘summit’, the World Economic Forum doesn’t take place up a mountain but in a deep valley. Views are limited to the valley walls, making it difficult to survey the wider landscape. Take the cable car 1,000 metres up to a real summit and the picture changes dramatically. Mountains and valleys stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see. The whole becomes clear.
It turns out that the Forum’s location is well-suited to the kinds of discussions that go on here. Few people seem to comprehend the big picture, to see beyond what is near and familiar. Fewer still understand the changes that are now needed.
That said, the prevailing mood is noticeably different to the last time I was in Davos three years ago. This year, the self-satisfaction is gone and everything is decidedly sombre. People are clearly prepared to listen to ideas that would have been dismissed out of hand even a short time ago. For me, the key question was posed by Jim Wallis, Founding Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners: “Will we let this crisis change us? To do so requires repentance and real understanding. Only if fundamental change occurs, will the crisis have any redeeming features.” I saw the outward signs of contrition, but repentance and real understanding were limited to the few.
Listening to the bankers and financiers was instructive. Some were courageous enough to admit that they got it completely wrong, but too often I heard lectures about the dangers of over-regulation and the need for preserving self-regulation. What planet do these people live on? The regulators were more reassuring. It is clear that a sea change is coming. As Adair Turner put it, ‘If it looks like a bank and quacks like a bank, we will regulate it like a bank.’ John Gieve, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, assured me that counter-cyclical capital rules are a certainty. The causes of the depth of the financial crash seemed very clear – a total failure of regulation at all levels combined with flawed mathematical risk models and incentive schemes run out of control. The most plausible explanation I heard, though, was that too many people had been ‘bought-off’ in one way or another by the scale of the money being made to risk of questioning the source of this ‘gold.’
Some of the most interesting discussions I was involved in were around values. I moderated a private dinner of the world’s religious leaders who were clear about the need for a fundamental value shift in our economic system. There were also numerous calls for a move from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism (strictly speaking, if fully realised, this would cease to be capitalism) and a lot of interest in nef‘s ideas about how doing business and doing good can be much more closely aligned.
nef‘s National Accounts of Well-being attracted much attention with plaudits from, amongst others, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Economics Laureate. There was a sense that the time for these new measures has finally come. There was also real interest in new metrics covering well-being and sustainability from a number of companies.
On climate change, the scientists and academics were largely in agreement but many of the proposed solutions are still too technical and top-down. There were gasps when I suggested that to make clean technology viable we need a carbon price of at least $140 a tonne within the next five years – the man from British Airways told me it would ground its fleet – but I received strong support from David King, the former chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government.
One of the few proposals that recognises the inter-linked nature of the challenges we face is the Green New Deal, published by nef on behalf of the Green New Deal Group in the summer. The term is now in wide use and most stimulus packages being planned will use some variation of the phrase, and its thinking. Yet nothing world leaders have proposed to date goes anywhere near far enough in bringing about the complete environmental transformation of our economies we need to prepare us for a low carbon future. Everybody understands the implications of recession, some see the magnitude of the climate challenge, but many seem lulled by low oil prices into a false sense of security on energy supply. Without seizing the current opportunity to both insulate against the worst impacts of recession and lay the foundations for our future energy infrastructure through a Green New Deal, we will, in a few years’ time, I believe, face not only runaway climate change, but oil prices of $300-400 a barrel triggering a depression that would make the current crisis look like a picnic.
One obvious, immediate solution would be giving annual vouchers of, say, £1,000 per household, to invest in insulation, renewable energy and other green products and services. Once people have been lifted out of fuel poverty and our fledgling renewables industries brought to scale, a whole range of other mechanisms – such as green taxation – become viable. Once the policy had taken root, the increase in national debt could then be recovered by massive increases in the carbon price and fossil fuel energy taxes. This would be a precursor to a path to a low material throughput economy. According to Joseph Stiglitz, this will mean an economy based on saving material resources, rather than one based on saving labour.
The path is clear, but sadly there are few signs that many of our politicians have the vision to take it. If Obama can match the promising rhetoric of his campaign with the right kind of response, then he could easily take the lead on these issues: it was encouraging to hear that Al Gore believes Obama understands the scale of the climate challenge. In the meantime, it falls to those of us on the outside to push on up the mountain path, in search of that wider perspective. If we do that, then we might just rise from the ashes of these current crises, and start building an economic system which works for the well-being of people and planet.