At our last event, we welcomed Charles Seaford, formerly of the New Economics Foundation, to discuss “How is the measurement of wellbeing useful for economic policy?”
We often presume that government policies are intended to benefit our wellbeing however, as Charles explained, as there is currently no standard method to quantify happiness, this view is a little naïve. Wellbeing goes beyond simply having the resources to “live a good life”; it includes the relationship one has with the world and our sense of purpose (or lack of). What’s more, the model is not a straightforward case of “External factors IN (good job, health, resources, etc.), Happiness OUT”. Instead, Charles described how good functioning and good conditions form a perpetuating ‘virtuous circle’; for instance, if you feel more self-confident, then you are more likely to get the job you want. “We see that flourishing is a means as well as an end goal” said Charles. “If we can get people flourishing, then many problems begin to solve themselves”.
So far, wellbeing has been assessed through basic surveys which question a person’s satisfaction with life, sense of purpose, ability to handle problems, and so on. Although simple, these have already yielded data that have implications for government policy, including the observation that people on short-term temporary contracts have less satisfaction than those who are unemployed. “This contrasts the traditional economic argument that unemployment is simply bad, so we must do all we can to remove it” said Charles. Hence, governments may do better to focus more on security in employment, rather than the quantity of jobs per se.
Traditionally, wellbeing has been presumed to increase in step with GDP and there is some evidence that this is the case. However, quantifying how wellbeing is affected by different circumstances can prove scientifically which policies really do bring a social benefit. Besides this, knowing the “wellbeing impact” values for different strategies would allow cash-strapped governments to perform cost-benefit analysis to decide which to implement. For instance, mental health conditions and litter have been found to have a hugely detrimental effect on wellbeing, yet these are relatively cheap to address.
But there may be times when economic growth and wellbeing come into conflict. “The traditional view is that economic policy should deliver wellbeing” said Charles “but this isn’t very scientific – it’s just presuming the right things will emerge”. Getting as many people into employment as possible may seem like the best economic strategy, yet this could have an overall net negative impact on societies if these jobs are unstable. Building a new factory might boost productivity, but it could also cause pollution that affects the environment of local communities. Hence, whilst having a science of wellbeing could simplify policy decisions, it may at times also call for economic growth to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Ultimately, knowing the factors which have the largest effects on our life satisfaction can help us “make our own happiness” to some extent. Giving to others, learning new skills, taking regular exercise, investing in strong relationships with friends and family – these have all been proven to have a critical bearing on wellbeing. And best of all, we can start doing them right away, without having to wait for parliamentary approval.
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/