Wellbeing: An idea whose time has come?


Ian Bache and Louise Reardon examine the recent focus on wellbeing and where it is heading.

The terms ‘wellbeing’ and ‘quality of life’ are frequently utilised as part of political rhetoric. In the recent UK EU referendum campaign for example, UKIP leader Nigel Farage invoked quality of life as a reason to vote leave – and as a way to undermine the economic concerns of those wanting to remain in the EU. For over a decade, David Cameron has spoken of the need to promote GWB (General Wellbeing Being) and not just GDP. At one point he went as far as to say that ‘Improving our society’s sense of well-being is… the central political challenge of our time’. In Cameron’s case, however, engagement with wellbeing has been more than just rhetorical.

While many would question the success of Cameron’s governments in improving our society’s sense of wellbeing he has nonetheless quietly supported a programme of wellbeing measurement and policy experimentation within government. For some, these initiatives have potential in the long-term to transform the way we measure progress and could lead to a refocusing of major tranches of policy.

So, where has this political interest in wellbeing come from and where is it going?

The first question is naturally easier to answer than the second. Cameron’s actions, are but one example of an explosion of governmental interest in the idea of wellbeing across the globe. At international level, there are initiatives within the EU, OECD, UN, and at national level within states as diverse and geographically spread as Australia, Bhutan, Ecuador, France and Morocco.

At the core of these developments is a disquiet with GDP as the dominant indicator of societal progress. This is not a new development – particularly in advanced industrial nations. For example, in the 1960s US President Lyndon Johnson spoke of the good society as ‘a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods’ and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy famously stated that GDP ‘measures everything… except that which make life worthwhile’.

What is different about current political interest in wellbeing is the breadth of activity (over 200 new alternative wellbeing measurement frameworks at international, national and subnational levels) and the resilience of interest in wellbeing despite major economic challenges and a range of other competing policy priorities. This interest is driven by a combination of concerns such as the environment, social issues and mental health.

That said, most frameworks and initiatives surrounding wellbeing are interested in complimenting GDP – generally with social and environmental indicators – rather than replacing it. Getting these types of objective indicators accepted alongside GDP as a guide to policy remains a difficult political challenge – even more of a hard sell is the use of subjective wellbeing indicators (e.g., on happiness), which are also prominent in new frameworks. Yet these issues are very firmly on the agenda.

So, what about the answer to the second question; where is this interest in wellbeing going? Well, the UK – while part of an international movement – has been at the forefront of measurement activity through a programme developed by the Office for National Statistics, incorporating both objective and subjective wellbeing indicators. Introduced in 2010, the Measuring National Wellbeing Framework is generating data that – in the long run – is intended to inform policy. At the same time, a number of government departments have begun to consider the impact of their policies on wellbeing, introducing questions on subjective wellbeing into appraisal and evaluation practices. This, civil servants argue, is an important early step in a long-term process.

However, the political context in which these indicators are produced will be central to their impacts in policy – and political interest can be fickle. In the short-term, the UK’s shock decision to leave the EU is unlikely to have had anything other than a negative impact on the wellbeing agenda – not only because of an intensified focus on key economic indicators, but also because of Cameron’s impending departure.

Longer term, and looking beyond the UK, are indications that wellbeing is an issue that is here to stay.

The Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015 – that all UN countries are to report on – provide a wide-ranging set of indicators that incorporate concerns with wellbeing. Alongside this are continued efforts by the EU and OECD to embed wellbeing into their reporting mechanisms, as well as rising interest in China and other emerging powers.

So, in relation to the development of new measurement frameworks and some shifts in discourse and practice, we can say that wellbeing is an idea whose time has come. As a transformative agenda – one that will refocus government action with a tangible impact on citizens’ lives – this appears a distant prospect. A necessary first step is the accumulation of more evidence on the wellbeing effects of different policies – beyond this is the need for political will to respond to what the evidence tells us about how government affects ‘what matters’ to people. The UK government’s decision to create a What Works Centre for Wellbeing in 2015 indicates that this first step is being taken: whether this is accompanied by the political will needed to focus policy on wellbeing more remains an open question – and one that we may not know the answer to for a generation.

Ian Bache is Professor of Politics and Co-Director of the Centre for Wellbeing in Public Policy (CWiPP) at the University of Sheffield and Louise Reardon is Research Fellow at the Institute for Transport Studies in the University of Leeds, UK.



The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing by Ian Bache
and Louise Reardon will be published in August.

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