The writer is an economist at the London School of Economics and co-author of ‘Wellbeing: Science and Policy’
Thomas Jefferson once said “The care of human life and happiness . . . is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” He was surely right — provided the happiness is fairly distributed. But how far will that philosophy be reflected in UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s forthcoming Budget?
The idea that the goal of government should be the wellbeing of the people is in fact a very British one, dating back to the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment. But it was not until 2011 that the UK began to measure wellbeing as an official “national statistic”. And in 2021, the Treasury’s Green Book on policy appraisal included an entire supplement on the assessment of wellbeing.
But will this approach really be applied across the range of policies? Leader of the opposition Keir Starmer has promised that it will if Labour is elected: “With every pound spent on your behalf we would expect the Treasury to weigh not just its effect on national income but also its effect on wellbeing”. But is this practicable? Can we really make people’s wellbeing the operational goal of public policy?
We can. There is now a new science of wellbeing, practised worldwide. The most common measure of wellbeing is, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” (0-10). The spread of answers to this question is huge, with 12 per cent of Britons reporting 5 or below — real misery, with the biggest causes being not poverty, but mental illness, physical sickness, loneliness and bad work.
Such findings have huge implications, both for government and for business. For government they point to the imperative that all policies, new and old, should be tested to see whether they generate enough human wellbeing relative to their net cost to the state.
There are many cost-effective policies which cost little, though some of them are grossly underfunded. These include psychological therapy, especially for children, elderly care, community services, vocational training and life-skills teaching in schools.
But what, you may ask, about growth? Growth generates income, which is one of many factors influencing wellbeing. But it cannot be the overarching goal which all other policies must serve.
So how can we move to a more balanced set of priorities? First, there has to be the evidence base. This is coming on well. The first textbook on wellbeing science has just been published. But, second, there has to be more public pressure. That is why 12 major multinational companies have joined with academics (including myself) to launch a World Wellbeing Movement, with very simple objectives.
First, governments should target the wellbeing of their people. Second, businesses should measure the wellbeing of their workers and take more care of it. And schools should measure how the wellbeing of their children progresses — not just their test scores.
This is no technocratic movement; rather it is one that emerges in support of a major change in culture — to one that cares more about how people feel and relate to each other, and less about external outcomes such as income and status.
As the World Happiness Report shows, since 2006, more and more people in every region of the globe report that they “experienced a lot of stress yesterday”.
Does it really make sense that, as our incomes grow and our comforts increase, we feel more stress and our mental health deteriorates? We have to move from an ultra-competitive culture to one that helps people to enjoy their lives more and to feel happier.
This cultural shift is already under way. Within the next 25 years we shall surely see more and more countries adopting Jefferson’s goal. It is, after all, the best reason there is for having a government.