Well-being Should Replace Growth as the Measure of a Country’s Success

Happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome,” observes Nietzsche.  Happiness can exist without well-being, but well-being can’t exist without happiness. It leads us to physical and emotional aspects which every person is trying to blend into a single and harmonious mixture.  Well-being is the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, and a sense of meaning or purpose. Well-being is something sought by just about everyone, because it includes so many positive things – feeling happy, healthy, socially connected, and purposeful – about just feeling well. For example, higher levels of well-being are associated with decreased risk of disease, illness, and injury; better immune functioning; speedier recovery; and increased longevity. Individuals with high levels of well-being are more productive at work and are more likely to contribute to their communities.

We are told that structural barriers to aspiration, achievement and contentment will melt away in our fantasy “choice” economy. Underneath the freedom of always being your own boss is the reality of fiscal precarity mixed with never having enough time for yourself. All happiness and dissatisfaction is reduced to lack of positive attitude. Since social class is no longer relevant, everybody ends up with the socio-economic position they deserve. This produces a chronic sense of self-blame, unease, anxiety and self-recrimination, with individuals having nobody to blame but themselves for not being famous, very rich or more attractive. The absurdity of the situation is that you can play the neoliberal game to perfection, and still end up with very little in return. Positive psychology enables a new happy subjective perspective from where happiness, rather than a long-term objective, is considered to be a precondition of work, a radical new form of human capital.

In liberal market economies like the US and UK, the gains of growth are increasingly being concentrated in the hands of the few, with average living standards stagnating. The IMF now suggests that inequality undermines growth itself – so the neoliberal approach to maximizing social welfare is fundamentally self-defeating. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. On the contrary, alleviating poverty and inequality need to be core and explicit goals of macroeconomic policy. Instability and insecurity are also hugely damaging to well-being. For example, the New Economics Foundation’s analysis of European data found that the difference in well-being between temporary and permanent workers was actually greater than that between temporary workers and the unemployed. If this seems surprising, that’s perhaps because we so drastically underestimate the anxiety and stress caused by insecurity. The promotion of ‘flexible labor markets’ in the name of growth and competitiveness may therefore not make us better off if it leads to the proliferation of insecure work.

A recent paper by economists at the London School of Economics even suggested that capitalist instability might help to explain why well-being has failed to increase over recent decades in countries like the US and UK. Because people are loss-averse, the dislocation of the busts far outweighs the welfare gains of the booms. So, well-being remains stagnant over time. On that basis, as argued by Gus O’Donnell in a recent report for the Legatum Institute, a well-being approach would place stability ahead of growth in the order of economic priorities – with implications for things like financial regulation. The crucial importance of our relationships with others for well-being challenges the individualism of the status quo. Research has now firmly established that both personal relationships (e.g. the amount of face-to-face time we have with friends and family) and social relationships (e.g. social cohesion or trust) are critical drivers of well-being.1

The economic elite claim neoliberal capitalism promotes human well-being, economic efficiency, and personal freedom. The new corporate values of globalization were normalized through a doublespeak, selling commercialization and free market choices as democracy while redefining the shape and functions of the state. In a crisis, conflict between the integrity of the financial institutions, on one hand, and the well-being of citizens on the other, the former is privileged. This system claims the common good depends entirely on the uncontrolled egoism of the individual, and especially on the prosperity of the corporation, hence freedom for corporations consists of freedom from responsibility and commitment to society. With these ideas now discredited, it’s time to devise a new narrative to guide our economies in a way that prevents neoliberalism’s excesses, promotes universal well-being as an economic imperative and ensures nationalism doesn’t once again win the battle of ideas.

There are many aspects to well-being. Emotional wellness implies the ability to express emotions appropriately, adjust to change, cope with stress in a healthy way, and enjoy life despite its occasional disappointments and frustrations. Intellectual wellness is a state in which your mind is engaged in lively interaction with the world around you. Environmental wellness is the capability to live in a clean and safe environment that is not detrimental to health. Social wellness is the ability to relate well to others, both within and outside the family unit. Occupational wellness means successfully integrating a commitment to your occupation into a total lifestyle that is satisfying and rewarding. Financial wellness includes your objective state of wealth, your behaviors as they relate to your state of wealth, your subjective perception of your state of wealth and your satisfaction with your state of wealth.

Consumers can experience financial well-being – or a lack of it – regardless of income. It’s a highly personal state, not fully described by objective financial measures. Instead, well-being is defined as having financial security and financial freedom of choice, in the present and in the future. People who are struggling financially often have poorer diets, can fear losing their homes, and typically experience strong feelings of shame about not being able to provide for themselves and their families. They also have higher rates of absence from work. Being born in rich countries like Canada and the US with increasing GDP growth and prosperity doesn’t bring happiness if it comes with more risk and uncertainty. The etiology of stress is increasing income inequality and wage stagnation for the working class as well as the long-term deterioration in employment opportunities that have led to intergenerational decline in economic security. 

Sustainability is essentially about maintaining Earth’s ecological and other biophysical life-support systems. If these systems decline, human population well-being and health will be jeopardized. Technology can buy time, but nature’s bottom-line accounting cannot be evaded. We must live within Earth’s limits. The state of human population health is thus a central consideration in the transition towards sustainability. Although a well-being approach is unavoidably anthropocentric, this perspective also provides powerful support for efforts to keep the economy within ecological limits. If, as economist JK Galbraith argued over 50 years ago, welfare in developed societies has more to do with fair distribution than growth – and if, as we have seen, our quality of life is not primarily a function of what we consume – then protecting the environment need not be at odds with promoting human well-being. The optimal solution, however, lies with governments, society and individuals – and requires changes in behavior, technologies and practices to enable a transition to sustainability.

Neoliberals emphasize that the role of government is to create a good business climate rather than look after the well-being of the population at large. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market supposedly ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. It is important to establish the differences between inequalities and inequities in health. Inequalities refer to perceived and measurable differences that exist in health conditions, or are related to differences in the access to prevention, cure or rehabilitation of health (inequalities in health care). Health inequities, on the other hand, refer to inequalities that are considered to be unjust or that stem from some form of injustice, that are socially produced. It reflects on a society how it translates existing inequalities and differentiates them into just or unjust ones, and this translation varies among societies. The conditions for formulating concrete political actions aimed at minimizing existing inequalities emerge at the moment when inequalities become inequities.

“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them,” observes Michel Foucault. Well-being is not just a luxury for good economic times. The well-being of the community depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society. Reducing poverty and promoting equality are more important goals than simply increasing the size of the economy – new data shows that stability is better than growth. More fundamentally, it helps to remind us that markets and growth should only ever be tools that improve the well-being of all, not just serve the interests of an economic elite.

1 Christine Berry (23 April 2014) Well-being is more than a side-show to neoliberal economics.  https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/wellbeing-is-more-than-sideshow-to-neoliberal-economics/

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