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How do we move towards a society that prioritizes wellbeing?

Sam is one of our Wellbeing Ambassadors, based in Rochester NY in the United States. He is currently finishing his Master’s dissertation in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College. His work is centred on exploring the impacts of the wellbeing indexes which are already in use, and on their potential for being applied to the local scale. This post provides an introduction to some of the wellbeing measures Sam has been researching thus far.

By Sam Willsea

When it comes to increasing our wellbeing as a society, one of our biggest obstacles is how we measure progress - what goal posts we set as we try to get and keep the train on the tracks. For the past 75 years, we have been using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a catch-all target for policy. GDP is great for measuring specific qualities, like the productive capacity of a country. That’s why it was adapted in the first place - it was a perfect goal after World War II. Increasing production was essential to recovery, and increasing GDP was one of the most straightforward ways of ensuring that happened.

The problem, of course, is that increased production alone does not guarantee a happy, healthy society. GDP doesn’t account for the distribution of growth, lumps both desirable and undesirable spending (like cleaning up natural disasters) together as uniformly good, and takes no account of the depletion of natural resources, among other things. More lyrically, Robert Kennedy famously summed up this dilemma in 1968 when discussing GNP, GDP’s formerly popular sibling:

"The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ... the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl... Yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play... the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages... it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

If we accept that we need to move away from prioritizing GDP only, it’s clear that we’re at a crucial point in history. The way we measure progress will affect policy for decades to come - it would be unfortunate if future generations were tied to outdated goalposts just as we have been. Yet, there are some great changes we can begin to make now – which are being made by many already – and they revolve around increasing wellbeing.

You may have heard about Bhutan’s well-known move away from GDP, in the form of their new measuring stick, Gross National Happiness (GNH). The name makes perfect sense when you realize that Bhutan’s legal code, dating from 1729, declares “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.” As the first country to adopt GNH, they present a fascinating case study of potential directions other countries could take. Their particular index measures changes which demonstrate the wellbeing of Bhutan’s population in the following areas: psychological wellbeing, health, education, culture, time use, governance, community vitality, living standards, and ecological stewardship.

While they may be the first country to wholeheartedly embrace the possibilities of wellbeing indexes, Bhutan’s leaders are not the only ones experimenting. The New Economics Foundation in London, for example, has been ranking countries in their Happy Planet Index for the last few years. The core of their particular formula is wellbeing and health (measured as experienced wellbeing x life expectancy) compared with total ecological footprint, and this formula certainly yields interesting results. In 2012, for example, Costa Rica ranked as the best country on their index. While Japan tops the charts for life expectancy and Denmark for experienced wellbeing, when you incorporate the ecological footprint of their respective residents, Costa Rica comes out on top.

Considering it is estimated that for every person on earth to have the material living standard of those in the US would require the four times as much land as is available on Earth, achieving good standards of wellbeing with a low ecological impact is critical. There’s clearly a lot of progress to be made across the board (even the standards of Costa Rica, applied worldwide, would still exceed our resources by 40%). That said, if we know the problem we can work towards the solution. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, you can calculate your own score on the Happy Planet Index.

The New Economics Foundation is also calling for national accounting of wellbeing, focusing initially on European countries. Nef’s report about this emphasizes the contrasts such a process can reveal between different countries and their respective ideal policy approaches.

Elsewhere in the world, Canada is pursuing it’s own index of wellbeing, while some individual US states are pursuing a similar index structure called Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI). Unlike some of the indexes mentioned already, GPI is interesting because it uses its measurements of wellbeing to alter calculations for GDP. Keeping GDP in the formula is useful, as it gives clear visual evidence that although GDP has gone up steadily over the past few decades in the US, GPIs have not improved significantly. Some sub-indicators have declined, and others have risen, but all together, genuine progress (as defined by this index) has been stalled. So far, GPI is being explored by the states of Maryland, Vermont, Utah, Ohio, and Minnesota, with the possibility of more joining in the future.

Overall, the momentum for alternative indicators of progress is blossoming. Though not exhaustive, this map provided by the government of Australia is a great place to start if you want explore what’s going on in your country already. Plus there are plenty of opportunities to get practically involved by connecting with those projects and organizations directly engaged with the topic of wellbeing, such as the Network of Wellbeing!


Message from Sam, the author of this post: Dear readers, Thank you for your interest in this post and my research! As mentioned above in the introduction to this post, I am currently researching the potential for wellbeing measures to be applied at the local scale. While wellbeing indexes have been used to measure the progress of cities as a whole, they are not commonly scaled down to show variances between different neighborhoods, suburbs, and demographic groups. If you know of any projects at this scale, are involved in wellbeing indexes personally, or have any questions, please contact me directly or message me on twitter at @swillsea. Just to let you know, for interest, I’m writing this post on the way back from New York City, where the New Economics Institute has just hosted a conference called ReRoute (July 19-21). Over three days, a wide variety of practitioners and organizers from across North America came together to share tools, strategies, and stories about how we can create a new economy from the ground up. While not explicitly focused on the topic I’ve discussed in this post, it was an interesting exploration into the kind of economy we need to move towards to accomplish greater wellbeing. Overall, it was an incredible event, and I would encourage you to check out their website, where you can see videos from the conference: You can also find them on twitter as @neweconomics.

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