So the results of the first annual survey of UK wellbeing are out. As with Nef’s Happy Planet Index (HPI), the survey maps levels of our wellbeing across the UK.
On the Happy Planet Index we UK citizens score very badly. So how do scores vary within the UK? Well, Blackpool – despite it’s Pleasure Beach – comes out bottom on some of the measures. York comes out top for life satisfaction, and Scottish Islands do well also. According to The Independent’s headlines, if you want to be happy, get a job, be a woman and move to my home-town of Bath. The detail of what brings wellbeing is what’s most interesting from the survey. One quote talks about “Creating a society that we are proud to hand on to our children and grandchildren”.
I’ve have blogged here before that in my view setting this ONS process in motion is one of the few really visionary and progressive things the government has done is to. And the Prime Minister has himself championed this work in the face of protests from regressives.
On that regressive note it’s no surprise that, amongst the news coverage on the survey this week, the Daily Mail has had a good old rant. It’s also a shame that those on the left are still snotty about such a progressive agenda. In echoes of the Taxpayers Alliance, shadow Cabinet Office minister, Michael Dugher, illustrated the depth and breadth of his vision by deriding the ONS project as “a statement of the bleeding obvious” and “a waste of taxpayers’ money”.
Whilst much of the survey is far from ‘bleeding obvious’, one thing the survey shows which will come as no surprise is that its no fun being unemployed. Some might suggest that our current (for how long) ‘work experience‘ Chancellor has more and more to answer for on that count…
What the survey shows is that what really matters to people are what think-tank the New Economics Foundation (Nef) calls the five-ways-to-wellbeing. What matters, and what we need our politics and our economy to support (rather than undermine), are things like flourishing relationships, a sense of community, being able to give back and help others, enjoying nature and exercise and learning new skills.
And yet our politicians mostly seem to have an impoverished vision of what ‘good lives’ are all about. They seem bent on blindly following what Professor Tim Jackson sums up so well in his Ted talk as “The ‘insatiability doctrine’ – we spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.” When things get bad they exhort us to just ‘go out shopping’ rather than punish those responsible for the mess we are in.
Rather than any serious consideration of the necessity of radically updating our economics, both the left and the right seem happy to fight over a middle ground of growth-at-all-costs, short-termist and mindless consumerism. So we are left with an economics and a way of life, which steals both our wellbeing and our children’s future safety. An economy Victor Lebrew described so well – “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace”.
There are some in and around politics with more vision. Way back in 1968, shortly before his assassination, Robert Kennedy spoke of the paucity of GDP as a measure of quality of life “it counts air pollution and cigarette advertising. It counts the destruction of the redwood in chaotic sprawl and the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
More recently, Sir Gus O’Donnell, until recently head of the civil service and ex-head of the treasury in the UK, has said he thinks that within ten years wellbeing will be the economy’s headline indicator, and that our wellbeing will be the fundamental thing we are measuring, with GDP a subsidiary indicator. I’d welcome that.
But it’s important that we don’t just measure these things for the sake of measurement and that Government uses what we are learning about the nature of ‘good lives which don’t cost the earth’ to alter policy. We need this new policy direction to support a shift in our economics and social values that can improve wellbeing and shift us to a Sustainable Wellbeing economy. It’s to be hoped that Cameron and co. will continue to champion these measures and use the work of the ONS and of Nef to develop a progressive policy landscape fit to meet the challenges of our ecological overshoot and wellbeing undershoot.
But I’m not holding my breath and if they don’t then there is an open goal waiting for the left for whom this should be home ground.