Wellbeing - sounds great but what does it mean?

25 Apr 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 30 Jul 2018

Bhutan where the happy people go. Pic: Christopher Michel wikicommons

The Carnegie Trust has recently announced a £350,000 fund for “embedding wellbeing” in Northern Ireland. This sounds great. But what does it mean?

Many of us are well used to bandying out the latest buzzwords and phrases. It is generally helpful if we know what they mean. Sometimes we don’t - or else our understanding of them is not quite the same as other people. But often we don’t ask the obvious because we don’t want to look foolish.

Wellbeing is a lovely, simple and familiar word. It also happens to be one that means different things to different people, so it is important to understand what it means in the context in which the Carnegie Trust is using it.

Back in 2008 the then French President Nicholas Sarkozy was becoming increasingly dissatisfied by the way we traditionally measure how countries are performing – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a measure of the value of goods and services in a country.

Surely, he thought, there was much more to how a nation was performing than that? Part of his concern was that GDP had continued to soar in the build up to the banking collapse because it failed to take into account increasing, unsustainable indebtedness. 

Consequently he commissioned two Nobel winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Amartya Sen of Harvard University, to examine the issue and propose alternatives.

Their report, which argued that GDP on its own was inadequate and that sustainability and human wellbeing should also be measured, was ground-breaking and attracted widespread attention from many governments. But what does wellbeing mean in this context?

It depends who you ask. The most comprehensive answer had been provided a year earlier by the Royal Government of Bhutan which instituted the goals of Gross National Happiness (GNH) into its constitution.

Happiness of course is a feeling, it belongs in the realm of the mystic rather than the statistician. But nevertheless Bhutan defined nine domains of happiness and four pillars of GNH. This impressed the United Nations sufficiently for it to declare 20 March International Happiness Day. It is unclear whether the ethnic minorities of that country, with its less than stellar human rights record have been equally enamoured.

That aside there has been a growing acceptance across the globe that we need, as communities and as nations, better ways to measure how we are doing, and that’s where the wellbeing/happiness agenda comes in.

An early adopter was David Cameron. In 2010 he said he wanted to adopt GWB (General Well Being) as opposed to GDP to measure progress. He said: "Wellbeing can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

As a result the Office of National Statistics was asked to start to measure national wellbeing and regular reports are published.

According to the latest figures people in England are feeling a bit better about life than they used to, but the happiest of the lot are in Northern Ireland. Women, generally speaking are happier than men.

The results are based on surveys where people report how satisfied they are with their lives, how worthwhile, how happy they feel and their levels of anxiety. Cameron’s vision when he announced the ONS surveys was that “It will help bring about a re-appraisal of what matters, and in time, it will lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile.”

So far, so airy-fairy. But when measuring wellbeing starts to feed into policy it gets much more interesting and exciting. The Scottish government, often a model for innovation, has led the way on this.

As early as 2007 the incoming Scottish National Party set out to reform the way government works. It set out a National Performance Framework both to set out the governments long term objectives and to explain how they would be measured.

Underpinning this was to get the government to start functioning as a single organisation working to a clear purpose based on defined outcomes with indicators to track performance.

The purpose stated is “to focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.”

So for Scotland a means of measuring national progress is in place and every citizen can track its progress for themselves.

If all this sounds a little familiar that is not surprising. Our own Programme for Government with its Outcomes Based Accountability approach was inspired by and seeks to build upon the Scottish model.

It has 14 strategic outcomes which, taken together are intended to provide the essential components of societal wellbeing. They touch on every aspect of government, including the attainment of good health and education, economic success and confident and peaceful communities.

For example Outcome 2 is “We live and work sustainably – protecting the environment” Outcome 4 is “We enjoy long, healthy, active lives Outcome 12 is “We have created a society where people want to live and work, visit and invest.

So if you want a definition of wellbeing in the context used by Carnegie it is all there in the 14 outcomes specified in the Programme for Government.

The big challenge of course is that making progress towards any and all of these cannot be the responsibility of any one department, or indeed just of government. It involves work across departments and between government and the voluntary sector, community groups, local government and citizens.

One of the most exciting ways this will happen is through community planning partnerships whereby public bodies work with local communities to design and deliver better services based on what people need now and want to work towards, as opposed to what bureaucrats or politicians think they need.

And it is their work which the Carnegie Trust will be supporting with its £350,000.  

It is a great example of far-sighted philanthropy which will build on best practice from across the globe. And there is nothing airy-fairy about that.

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