Contemporary politics is often thought to be thin on big ideas, or ideology – and to have become nothing more than a battlefield of claims and counter-claims about managerial competence. However, in recent years, political debates in the UK (and more widely) have witnessed the emergence of a concept that evokes the moral theories of Aristotle as well as recent developments in psychology: well-being. The idea of well-being as an encompassing conception of the social good, something that is objectively worth striving for, and is not intrinsically dependent on wealth or economic growth was championed by advisors to the New Labour administration from 1997-2010, and has continued to be part of the policy language of the Coalition government. In 2010, David Cameron suggested that parental ‘warmth’ rather than ‘wealth’ was the most important factor in shaping children’s life chances. More recently, the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has stated that there is no necessary link between income and well-being. What is meant, then, by well-being, and why has it become so attractive to politicians in recent years? Can it be the focus of a vision of society that chimes with concepts of sustainability and democracy, or are there good reasons to be suspicious of it?

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician...
Iain Duncan Smith: Champion of Well-being? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, our speakers led a wide-ranging discussion on these and other issues. Prof. Robin Attfield (Philosophy, Cardiff University) introduced the concept of well-being, distinguishing it from concepts such as happiness and goodness of character. He noted that well-being can be achieved without one being conscious of it, unlike happiness. Further, it does not require that we get what we happen to want, or as economists say, succeed in satisfying our preferences. Instead, it implies an objective standard of flourishing, that there is something universally good for human beings to have, and that someone who enjoys well-being has obtained this.

Robin suggested that this implies that we can speak meaningfully about human nature, and that there are particular capacities which human beings have by virtue of their species that need to be developed and exercised for well-being to exist. The same is true of other species: by virtue of being a gnu or a lion, a gnu or lion has its own objective good: there are better and worse ways of being a gnu or lion, each implying different levels of well-being (a lion in a zoo, unable to hunt, is worse off for it). The ability to communicate in various ways, the capacity for practical reason, for self-determination, for having significant relationships with others, for engaging in meaningful work and so on are all examples. These capacities relate to needs in different and sometimes complex ways. Some needs (food, shelter, health and so forth) are necessary first if we’re going to develop particular capacities. Others (education, for example) are an intrinsic part of fulfilling other capacities. Many of these needs are difficult or impossible for individuals to fulfil on their own, meaning that the related capacities are also hard for them to develop without the assistance of others. Consequently, a range of other people can contribute to our well-being, from parents to governments. Indeed, the role of government in promoting well-being should be seen as particularly important.

Professor Gareth Williams and Dr Eva Elliott (Social Sciences, Cardiff University) introduced their research on well-being in Wales and on the government can and should play. They noted that there is a lot of variation in what is perceived as being essential to well-being at different points in the life course (job satisfaction scores more highly among younger people, health among older people) and between different social classes (the poor naturally value income more than the rich), but that in any case the concept goes far beyond simple health to encompass various capacities, as Robin suggested. In public policy, a range of reports in the last decade – from bodies such as the National Institute for Economic Affairs, the New Economics Foundation and UNICEF have all emphasised the importance of well-being, and the contribution such factors as meaningful work can make to it. The Office for National Statistics has developed measures of well-being that introduce such concepts as equality and environmental quality.

Research suggests that inequality, and degraded socio-economic conditions more generally, are major barriers to well-being, particularly in relation to mental health: Eva spoke of an interviewee from North-West England describing how it is the conditions in which one lives that ‘make life hell’ and constrain what one can do about it. Recent work in Wales has demonstrated the presence of a marked gradient in physical and mental health among different income groups. At the same time, individual self-help has been seen as an important way to promote well-being.

Well-being is not equally distributed...
Well-being is not equally distributed...

The New Economics Foundation produced a campaign called ‘5 Ways to Well-Being’ which sought to address the impact inequality has on mental health by encouraging positive action on the part of individuals. But research on the impact of factors like inequality and on the contribution individuals can make to improving their own well-being together highlight problems within the well-being agenda. On the one hand, given an ‘objective’ definition of wellbeing, it becomes easier to concentrate on deficits than it is to find positive examples of well-being, particularly when research findings are disseminated through the media. This can lead to places becoming stigmatised as unhealthy, deprived, and without hope. On the other, an emphasis on individuals can take the focus away from the socio-economic backdrop and encourage responsibility to be attributed unfairly to those living in difficult conditions.

Eva underlined how important the first point is by describing research her team had done in Merthyr Tydfil, where statistics suggested 58 years of age was the average healthy life expectancy (HLE). This was picked up by the Western Mail, who reported it by stating that this figure was worse than that of men living in Haiti. In fact, they had confused HLE with life expectancy as such. This focus on deficits of well-being contrasted with statements from interviewees living on the Gurnos estate, who talked of the quality of their personal relationships, their friendships, how the place they lived had simply attracted a ‘bad name’ and how they would not want to live anywhere else.

Mrs Gillespie on the Gurnos, Merthyr Tydfil
Mrs Gillespie on the Gurnos, Merthyr Tydfil

This showed how well-being – and what matters to people as constituents of well-being – are closely linked to people’s experience of places, and that identifying deficits in well-being ‘from a distance’ can lead to these elements being missed.

Missing the positives can lead to unhelpful forms of top-down intervention. Similarly, concentrating on the individual or on the contribution that affected communities can make can lead to the promotion of ideals like ‘resilience’ which are focused on helping people survive amidst bad conditions rather than governments taking responsibility for these conditions themselves.

“The economic system thrives on ill-being.”
“If people felt more secure, would they work as hard?”
“A lack of anxiety or worry underpins well-being.”
“Making choices requires the opportunity to make them!”

From the audience…

Many audience members responded to the issues raised by Gareth and Eva regarding the distribution of the power to define well-being, and the individualisation of measures to promote it, and also what one person referred to as the investment of society in the production of ‘ill-being’, namely envy and permanently unfulfilled consumer desire. Some questioned the coherence of the distinction between happiness and well-being, noting that concepts of ‘flow’ indicate that happiness can be about being ‘in the moment’ whilst engaged in an engrossing activity, rather than being a product of reflecting (asking ‘am I happy’?). Robin defended the distinction, pointing to Huxley’s Brave New World and the industrial production of happiness via drugging the populace as the antithesis of well-being. Others pointed to anxiety and insecurity as obstacles to well-being, factors that can only be attested to by the people suffering them – and conditions that may arise from the inability to imagine a future over which one has any influence. If one needs to have some degree of control over one’s future to have well-being, however, than another question is how this can be best achieved. Gareth pointed to collective action, such as is made possible by trades unions and other forms of association, as a key to achieving such influence. Eva mentioned the idea of the ‘core economy’ of care, promoted by Edgar Cahn, as a way of understanding agency and control as key elements of well-being beyond the money economy.   The panel suggested that such forms of agency as are embodied by co-operatives and even choirs are resources in which Wales may be rich, even though official narratives threaten to stigmatize the country through images of deprivation.

You can tweet about this topic using the hashtag #cpcwellbeing. You can also register your views below by taking the poll – do you think we should promote well-being rather than simply trying to increase GDP?

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