Why wellbeing isn't just for middle class hippies

Richard Dyer

11 November 2014

What is our economy for? We think it should be about delivering wellbeing for all within environmental limits.

The NHS has been in the news a lot recently, with its Chief Executive Simon Stevens’ ‘5 year forward review’ identifying a jaw-dropping £20billion annual shortfall in funding that would need to be filled by 2020 if we want an NHS to be proud of.

I’m no expert, but one thing that struck me from a quick look through the report was the amount of cash being spent on health issues related to the way we live – obesity, alcohol, smoking related illnesses, for example. And then there’s the urgent need to spend more on preventing and treating mental illness, as the Lib Dems rightly highlighted at their party conference a few weeks ago.

It’s not surprising that good health (including mental health) is one of the key components of personal wellbeing, yet the dominant paradigm of economic growth at all costs doesn’t necessarily deliver this. Take China where the humungous growth in GDP in recent years has been mirrored by a fall in life satisfaction

I’m not about to pin all the world’s ills on capitalism, but there’s definitely much more to life than just economic growth - there’s an increasing realisation that we need to refocus our economy so it delivers the things that are really important to us.

At the Resurgence festival of wellbeing that I attended last month, we heard how economic inequality is a major contributing factor to ill health  and lack of wellbeing

We also heard the sobering (and frankly obscene) statistic from Oxfam that the world’s 85 richest people own the same wealth of the poorest half of the global population. That’s 3.5 billion people to you and me.

Mark Williamson from Action for Happiness explained how ‘the best things in life aren’t ‘things’’. While Monty Don gave us a moving account of how finding his connection with nature had been a revelation for his personal journey from troubled youth to finding wellbeing. His recycled bit of George Harrison spiritual wisdom that ‘loose trousers’ are the secret to wellbeing got a few chuckles too!

But, you might say, isn’t ‘wellbeing’ some middle class neo-hippy thing? Well actually it’s not. It’s about the things that give us all decent lives, which our politicians are under huge pressure to do something about.

So what’s Friends of the Earth’s big idea to increase our wellbeing?

Well it’s really about asking the question – what is the economy for? We think that it should be about making life better for us all - while protecting the planet we depend on.

Huge strides forward could be taken by giving the Treasury (HMT) objectives that boost our well-being, instead of simply focussing on cold GDP figures. At the moment HMT is hugely biased towards pushing economic growth at just about any cost - paying little attention to the impacts of its policies on the planet, and the people that live on it.

We need to Transform the Treasury. And it’s not just us that thinks this. Former Cabinet Secretary and Treasury Chief Lord Gus O’Donnell agrees - as he explains in this film clip.

Imagine a Treasury – or any economics ministry, come to that - that was focussed around delivering key pillars of wellbeing – such as health, tackling inequality and ensuring reliable and rewarding work. HMT wouldn’t necessarily deliver these things itself, but it should sort out its own priorities, and come up with much better tools to understand the impacts of its policies and spending decisions on something other than the ‘bottom line’.

This might mean that policies like annual increases in the minimum wage (to tackle inequality) and increased funding for tackling mental health issues would be given much higher priority.

The ball is already rolling in terms of gathering evidence on what policies improve wellbeing. A ‘what works’ centre has recently been launched to do just that, which we welcome.

We also need the political parties to start promoting policies to improve wellbeing– which Lord Gus O’Donnell also agrees with us about too in this film clip.

Policies put forward must also be deliverable within global environmental limits. Ultimately, for both economic and environmental reasons we need to reduce the UK’s consumption of global land, water and materials, and of greenhouse gas emissions – the ‘four footprints’ – and HMT needs to take ownership of this critical issue.

These are ambitious changes of course and I really welcome views on this (there’s a comments box below). But I’ll leave you with this thought: A Government and Treasury that ensured all policies and spending plans prioritised increasing our wellbeing (in all its various dimensions) and did this within global environmental limits would pretty much deliver everything we need for us to have the best possible future in harmony with planet.

I’d also bet that some of those billions needed to expand the NHS to cope with the downsides of our current economic system wouldn’t be needed. The middle class hippies would like that - but they certainly wouldn’t be alone.

Read more about Friends of the Earth’s work on wellbeing here

Richard Dyer (@RichardDyer63) is a campaigner in the Economics and Resource Use programme.

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