A Well-Being Manifesto for a Flourishing Society by the New Economics Foundation
One of the key aims of a democratic government is to promote the good life: a flourishing society, where citizens are happy, healthy, capable and engaged – in other words with high levels of well-being. While many policies tend to focus on enhancing people’s incomes by expanding the economy, this has not tended to result in higher levels of well-being. In fact, while GDP has nearly doubled over the last 30 years, measures of well-being have remained static. This well-being manifesto seeks to answer the question “what would politics look like if promoting people’s well-being was one of government’s main aims?”
What is well-being?
Some academics argue that well-being is best understood in terms of our overall happiness or satisfaction with life. But evidence shows that there is much more to life than satisfaction: people also want to be leading rich and fulfilling lives – developing their capabilities, fulfilling their potential, and leading socially useful lives.
Therefore, nef’s (the new economics foundation’s) model of well-being has two personal dimensions and a social context:
People’s satisfaction with their life which is generally measured by an indicator called life satis-faction: this captures satisfaction, pleasure and enjoyment.
People’s personal development for which there is not yet one standard psychological indicator – the concept includes being engaged in life, curiosity, ‘flow’ (a state of absorption where hours pass like minutes), personal development and growth, autonomy, fulfilling potential, having a purpose in life, and the feeling that life has meaning.
People’s social well-being – a sense of belonging to our communities, a positive attitude towards others, feeling that we are contributing to society and engaging in pro-social behaviour, and believing that society is capable of developing positively.
For people to lead truly flourishing lives they need to feel they are personally satisfied and developing, as well as functioning positively in regard to society. Unfortunately too many people are instead languishing – living unhappy, unfulfilled lives as well as lacking social and community engagement. Estimates from the US suggest that less than 20 per cent of the population are flourishing and over 25 per cent are languishing, with the rest being somewhere in between.
Well-being promotes a better society
Well-being is an important end in itself. It also has many benefits and contributes to other important ends. Evidence shows that happy people are more:
- Sociable – Generous – Creative
- Active – Tolerant – Healthy
- Altruistic – Economically productive – Long living
Therefore, promoting individual well-being is not just an important end in itself; it also has useful consequences.
The Well-Being Manifesto
One of the key aims of a democratic government is to promote the good life: a flourishing society, where citizens are happy, healthy, capable and engaged – in other words with high levels of well-being. This well-being manifesto seeks to answer the question “what would politics look like if promoting people’s well-being was one of government’s main aims?”
Well-being is more than just happiness. As well as feeling satisfied and happy, well-being means developing as a person, being fulfilled, and making a contribution to the community.
Where does our well-being come from? Research suggests that there are three main influences:
- Our parents, through our genes and our upbringing, influence about 50 per cent of the variation in happiness between people.
- Our circumstances, which include our income, as well as other external factors such as the climate and where we live, account for only 10 per cent. Does money make us happier? Not after our basic needs are met, because we are always moving the goalposts. We adapt very quickly to the material gains which come from increases in income and we also compare ourselves to others who have more and this can lead to dissatisfaction.
- Our outlook and activities – like our friendships, being involved in our community, sport, and hobbies as well as our attitude to life – account for the remaining 40 per cent. This is where we have the most opportunity to make a difference to well-being.
What can government do?
Policies can’t make us happy or more engaged with life, but they can shape the culture and society in which we live. Many policies tend to focus on enhancing people’s income by growing the economy. This has only a small effect on well-being, however, and may be achieved at the expense of our time with others, the environment in which we live, or the vibrancy of local communities. This well-being manifesto suggests eight areas where government could act to promote well-being:
1. Measure what matters
A detailed set of national well-being accounts would allow us to understand well-being better and track changes over time. Local government could carry out well-being audits of their communities in order to help integrate their services and allocate their funds more effectively and efficiently.
2. Create a well-being economy
Growing the economy does not necessarily result in higher levels of well-being. So what directions should the economy take to promote well-being? High-quality work can profoundly affect our well-being by providing us with purpose, challenge, and opportunities for social relationships. It can constitute a meaningful part of our identity. There are many models of good workplaces whose lessons need to be drawn out and disseminated to employers. Well-being research provides many insights into what makes for good work. Unemployment has terrible effects on the well-being of the unemployed, but also lowers the well-being of the employed. Hidden unemployment in the UK is high, with many incapacity-benefit claimants able and willing to work but not counted in the unemployment figures. The Government needs to help these often hard-to-reach groups to find meaningful work.
The well-being of future generations depends on not destroying our environment. We need to start moving towards a system of taxing environmental bad’s, such as fossil fuels, and reducing the tax burden on good’s, such as work. This could pay a double dividend of protecting the environment and improving people’s well-being.
3. Reclaim our time
We systematically over-estimate the amount of happiness extra income will bring us and work too many hours to get it. We fail to account for the fact that our expectations also rise with our incomes. Spending more time with our children, families, friends, and communities would bring us more happiness. We should start taking our productivity gains in the form of time. We should end individual opt-outs to the EU Working Time Directive and thus institute a maximum 48-hour working week. We could then reduce this maximum working week until we reach a maximum 35-hour week. This could be achieved whilst maintaining our present standards of living within around 15 years if accompanied by appropriate pension reform and a managed migration policy. We should accompany this with increased flexible working provisions and more bank holidays.
4. Create an education system that promotes flourishing
The purpose of the education system should be to create capable and emotionally well-rounded young people who are happy and motivated. At its heart, education policy must acknowledge that the best way of enabling people to realise their potential is to value them for who they are rather than their performance against targets.
All schools should have a strategy to promote emotional, social and physical well-being. The curriculum needs to be broadened to include more opportunities around sports, arts, creativity, and other engaging activities. Early on in their lives, young people should be exposed to evidence about the kinds of satisfaction derived from different sorts of life choices, perhaps through broader study of what makes a ‘good life’. An education system which promotes flourishing will lead to higher productivity, a more entrepreneurial society, and greater active citizenship.
5. Refocus the health system to promote complete health
There are important links between health and well-being. The scale of the effect of psychological well-being on health is of the same order as traditionally identified risks such as body mass, lack of exercise, and smoking.
The National Health Service (NHS) and other health institutions need to continue to broaden their focus to promote complete health, which is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. To do this, we need to accelerate the move towards a preventative health system. We also need to tackle mental health far more systematically. Treating people holistically means that health professionals need to go beyond just curing the biomedical causes of disease to thinking about the social and psychological aspects of how patients are treated. All health institutions should have some system in place to involve patients as partners in the business of delivering health; there needs to be investment in training frontline staff on good practice around this. Local authorities could promote healthier communities through encouraging local organisations, such as healthy living centres, to take the well-being agenda forward.
6. Invest in the very early years and parenting
Children need a lot of responsive individual attention in their first years, preferably from their parents. Cost-benefit analyses show that investment in the age group ‘zero to three’ will repay itself many times over, due to reduced health, education and social costs in the future.
Parental leave should be extended to cover at least the first two years of a child’s life. This could be taken by either parent, or potentially shared between them. High-quality childcare should be subsidised for those parents who need, or wish, to work. Parents should also be actively supported to be the best parents they can be. This will require a mixture of community support, good local facilities, and education.
7. Discourage materialism and promote authentic advertising
We don’t become sexier and more attractive by switching brands of shampoo or buying a new car. So the media generally, and adverts specifically, should stop using imagery that suggests we do. Young children lack the critical capacity to distinguish between facts and selling messages. Materialism is not only bad for the environment, it also undermines our well-being. We should ban commercial advertising aimed at the under-eight’s, and have a strong code of conduct for such advertising for the under-16′s.
A society more engaged in meaningful pastimes is likely to be less focused on the illusion that material goods will bring it happiness. We should endeavour to make the well-being choice the easy choice, to wean us off our national pastimes of shopping and TV watching. We need to increase support for cheap and local leisure provision, such as sports centres and arts venues, as well as informal open spaces and parks.
8. Strengthen civil society, social well-being and active citizenship
Being actively engaged with communities has been shown not only to give us a personal sense of well-being but also to have positive knock-on effects for others. This bolsters the case for government to support different sorts of community engagement and civil society organisations and spaces through, for example, a Citizen’s Service, a participation income, and mutual solutions such as reward cards and time banks.
There is a link between well-being and democratic involvement that has implications for public-service delivery. We need to go beyond giving a choice of provider in public-service delivery to involving people in the design and delivery of the services they receive. We should also drop the swathes of central-government targets that service providers face and replace them with a process of stakeholder engagement and accountability which places the user in the centre.
Call for a flourishing society
We have achieved a high standard of living. But we must be careful that a singular focus on economic efficiency does not destroy the real causes of well-being in our society. This is a new area and further research needs to be done, but this manifesto suggests some ways of moving towards a flourishing society. The most important step, however, is for all policy-makers to ask “What would policy look like if it were seeking to promote well-being?” This should be one of the defining questions of politics in developed countries.
Read the full report for more background information and further elaboration on each recommendation in the manifesto (in PDF)
Keywords : ecosocial crisis, economic growth, less is more, well-being, personal well-being, ecological well-being, one planet living, sustainability, sustainable development, social well-being, happy people, work-life balance, time poverty, voluntary simplicity, participatory democracy, engaged citizenship, community entrepreneurship, social capital, flourishing society, flourishing civilization, life-sustaining civilization design
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