May 16, 2014 7:05 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: How can we improve our wellbeing?

‘By acting as though wellbeing is measurable, the government is glossing over contested issues of value’

The Shrink

Illustration by Laura Carlin of people talking in a queue©Laura Carlin

Wellbeing may be a bit of a buzzword at the moment but the term can be confusing. Wellbeing and happiness are used interchangeably but also in contrast to each other. In positive psychology, which focuses on building strengths rather than solving problems, subjective wellbeing is pretty much synonymous with happiness, and it consists of self-reported life satisfaction and mood. Many researchers, however, have been wary of relying solely on subjective evaluations and have focused instead on conceptions of wellbeing that have objective components.

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The Shrink & The Sage

So what are the elements of wellbeing? The Office for National Statistics, which runs the “Measuring National Well-being” programme, groups its findings under the following set of headings: personal wellbeing (including happiness and life satisfaction), relationships, health, what we do (both work and leisure), where we live, personal finance, economy, education and skills, governance and natural environment.

In other lists, wellbeing is often associated with certain personality traits, health, marriage, a good social network, fulfilling work and religion. There is the usual proviso that many of these factors are circumstantial. As such, we have limited control over them and that is potentially discouraging. What if you’re single and not happy in your work? Or if you’re an atheist who is experiencing health problems? If our own circumstances don’t match the ideal ones we may end up feeling sorry for ourselves rather than inspired by such lists.

That is why it’s refreshing that the New Economics Foundation’s “Five Ways to Wellbeing” are framed in terms of actions rather than outcomes. They are: connect, be active, take notice (or be aware of yourself and the world), keep learning and give. Whether or not this is the ultimate list, what it gets right is that it directs us towards things over which we have some control: that is, how we live and the actions we take every day.

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The Sage

Ten leading economists and social scientists, in a comment piece for Nature earlier this year, wrote that: “GDP is dangerously inadequate as a measure of quality of life.” Of course, but did anyone think otherwise? Ever since the birth of democracy, parties have fought elections promising to improve healthcare, education, employment and security. No one has swept to power on the back of a manifesto that prioritises GDP.

The big new idea is not that wellbeing matters more than mere wealth but that it can and should be measured. Metrics are needed, claimed the Nature authors, because “Building the future we desire requires that we measure what we want, remembering that it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong”. Similarly, the Office for National Statistics says: “Within the UK, there is a commitment to developing wider measures of wellbeing so that government policies can be more tailored to the things that matter.”

Sometimes, however, a poor measure is worse than none at all. By acting as though wellbeing is measurable, the government is glossing over contested issues of value, creating an illusion that we all agree about what wellbeing is. For instance, a derivatives trader may be healthier, richer and jollier than a social worker but that does not make it obvious that her life is going better. It is not just a matter of observable fact whether someone’s wellbeing is high or low.

Wellbeing is a profoundly value-laden concept and treating it as though it were objective takes away from politics the central debate about what is required for a society to flourish. This is a completely unnecessary distraction. Healthcare, education, opportunity and equality can all be improved, and if they are, wellbeing improves too. But to decide how to improve them we need to have grown-up debates about what we value, not defer to some imperfect metric. If we want to improve our wellbeing, we should think more about what goes into it, and less about how to measure it.

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The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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