Five steps for a high well-being society

September 10, 2014

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It’s now eight years since David Cameron first declared that “it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being” and in that time the UK has become a global leader by measuring national well-being – but we have yet to make the leap from measurement to action.

This is partly because well-being is still too widely seen as a sideshow, a frivolous agenda with little to say in a time of recession and austerity. This view was summed up by Nick Hurd, until recently the Minister responsible for well-being policy: “Since we embarked on this journey, lots of other short-term pressures have piled on to the system.” Others regard well-being data as too new to be used as a basis for policy, or question whether it would really lead us to do things any differently.

A new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Wellbeing Economics, for which NEF acts as the secretariat, explodes both of these myths. The group, which includes parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, argues that well-being matters more, not less, in difficult economic times:  we care about recessions because we care about unemployment, and we care about unemployment because we care about people’s well-being. And they show that well-being offers a real alternative to business-as-usual policy making, from the way we run the economy to the way we run our schools.

The report is based on a nine-month inquiry which explored well-being in relation to four diverse policy areas. In each of these, the evidence threw up both some distinctive policy priorities and some fresh approaches to old problems. The report makes five key recommendations for building a high well-being society:

  • Focus on stable jobs, not growth: Economic success cannot be measured solely by rising incomes: the link between income and well-being weakens once basic needs are met. By contrast, unemployment has devastating and lasting impacts on well-being, while job insecurity is also very damaging. And if growth comes at the price of economic instability, evidence suggests it may actually reduce well-being in the long run, as the dislocation of the bust more than wipes out the well-being gains of the booms. Secure, stable employment – not growth – should be the primary focus of economic policy.
  • Promote shorter, more flexible working hours: The President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, John Ashton, recently suggested that the UK is suffering from a “maldistribution of work … too many people are working too long hours and too hard, and too many people aren’t working at all”. Moving towards a shorter working week could help to address both of these problems.  Well-being evidence supports the benefits of shorter and more flexible hours – but, while nearly half of all UK full-time workers want to work part-time or flexibly, a third believe they would never be able to. Policymakers need to make it easier to work shorter hours – and the public sector should lead by example.
  • More green spaces in our cities: Planning processes have lost sight of their original mission to improve community well-being: we urgently need to restore this sense of purpose. A well-being approach to planning would embrace traditional goals, like building enough decent homes, alongside new priorities, such as green space, social inclusion and promoting physical activity. Trading off well-being against growth, as the planning system increasingly does, may well be a false economy: city liveability is a major consideration for big employers, while making it easier to walk or cycle could save the NHS an estimated £675m a year.
  • Mindfulness training for doctors and teachers: Mental health problems cost the UK economy an estimated £70bn annually, yet only one in four sufferers of depression or anxiety are currently in treatment – and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, a NICE-recommended treatment for recurrent depression, is still not widely available on the NHS.  Training medical students and teachers in mindfulness techniques would build capacity both for mindfulness-based medical interventions and for mindfulness in schools, which has been shown to improve children’s well-being as well as their ability to concentrate and learn. Of course, behavioural interventions like mindfulness are not a substitute for addressing the structural economic causes of low well-being – but they do have huge potential to improve people’s lives.
  • Invest in arts and culture: One of the strengths of a well-being approach is its ability to better value non-market goods, and goods which we value for reasons that have little to do with the market.  In a climate where the arts community feels under increasing pressure to justify its activities in instrumental terms, well-being analysis provides a better way of capturing the value that arts and culture have for human lives. As well as their direct benefits for well-being, experiencing the arts – especially participatory arts – has been shown to impact on key drivers of well-being such as physical and mental health.

The report calls for all political parties to set out in their manifestos their strategy for building a high well-being society, and how they are going to embed well-being into the policy process if they are elected. If you want to help make sure they’ve got the message, why not write to your MP asking them for their party’s take on the report? Let’s make the next parliament the one where well-being takes its rightful place as a central goal of government policy.

Christine Berry

Christine Berry is a freelance researcher and writer and was previously Director of Policy and Government for the New Economics Foundation. She has also worked at ShareAction and in the House of Commons.

Tags: American economic policy, GDP, wellbeing economics