Governments should think less about GDP – and focus on wellbeing

10 Nov 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 10 Nov 2021

If wellbeing is going to work as an alternative to GDP, Stormont needs to commit to it. This looks increasingly possible.


Wellbeing is, in some ways, a slippery concept. Its definition has changed – and expanded.

A few years ago, it was a term associated with mental health, or with mental and physical health combined. Nowadays it still means that, as well as much more.

It has morphed into a general idea about how well an individual’s life is going at a moment in time, both subjectively and objectively. And, as an idea, this might be its endpoint, because this version of wellbeing could be something very useful indeed.

It could even become our most fundamental measure of the state of society, and the economy, and everything in between.

Late last month, the Executive Office published Northern Ireland’s latest wellbeing figures, for the year 2020-21.

Those findings weren’t great. Measures of life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety and loneliness all went in the wrong direction compared with 2019-20.

However, there was some good news. People’s views on self-efficacy (their belief about their capabilities to exercise influence over events that affect their lives) and their locus of control (the degree to which a person feels in control of their life) both shifted in positive directions.

Broadly speaking, women had worse scores than men across the board for different measures of wellbeing, as did people not in employment compared with those who have a job, while people in urban areas tended to have lower scores than those in rural areas.

However, while Stormont does a decent job of tracking wellbeing across various measures, the links between wellbeing levels and policy-making in government are not yet strongly established.

This is something that might change.


The Carnegie Trust is an organisation that is dedicated to promoting wellbeing – that is, both encouraging the adoption of wellbeing as a measure of social health and progress, and trying to boost overall wellbeing within the UK.

The organisation is campaigning for “a new measure of national progress – Gross Domestic Wellbeing, or GDWe – to measure whether life is getting better or worse”. It wants wellbeing to be central to all policy and decision making.

As part of that campaign, it produces regular updates on wellbeing, focusing on different parts of the UK.

In August, Carnegie released an update on GDWe in England which “found a drop in collective wellbeing in England had started even before the pandemic began”:

  • The latest GDWe score was 6.79 out of 10 for 2019/20, compared to 6.89 for 2018/19, its lowest level since 2015/16;
  • Wellbeing is falling in multiple measured areas including relationships and governance;
  • The number of adults in England feeling lonely has been increasing since 2017 and in the last year jumped by 44% (or 1.1m people) – an increase from 2.6m to 3.7m from October 2020 to February 2021;
  • Trust in government is at an-all time low following a nearly 40% drop from 2018/19 to 2019/20 (from 31% to 19%).

The importance of all this should be obvious. Looking at GDWe provides a way to measure more than just the sum total of economic productivity of a nation. The times when GDWe moves in the opposite direction to GDP are the times when it is most interesting as a concept (note that GDP grew in every year in the decade 2010-19).

GDWe allows something more fundamental to be tracked, and to be used as the basis for major decisions – how people feel about their lives.

And England is not the only part of the UK that Carnegie is working on.

Northern Ireland

In September, Carnegie UK published Working Together for Wellbeing: The report of the Northern Ireland Embedding Wellbeing in Local Government Programme, which examined and appraised a wellbeing programme than ran from 2017 to 2021 and involved three local councils.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, Derry City and Strabane District Council, and Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council all received financial and in-kind support from Carnegie UK working towards community planning partnerships that would see more and improved co-operation between local government and Stormont.

This scheme is very much a pilot project. Community planning is only a narrow aspect of what could be improved by a fundamental shift towards wellbeing (indeed, in theory wellbeing could underpin everything done by government and civil society).

In its report, Carnegie UK made 18 recommendations for boosting the importance of wellbeing in NI. Included among these were calls for the NI Executive to:

  • Legislate, as a matter of urgency, to protect the wellbeing of future and current generations by placing the wellbeing outcomes and indicators on a statutory footing
  • Introduce a Duty to Co-operate for services for the whole population, requiring departments, agencies and councils to work together to improve social, economic, environmental and democratic wellbeing outcomes.
  • Hold a Citizens’ Assembly on collective wellbeing as part of the post-COVID recovery plan
  • Provide secure and ongoing funding for the administration of community planning
  • Devolve regeneration powers to local government

Per the report: “Throughout this project we have sought not only to provide information in real time to Community Planning Partnerships to support their work, but also to the wider policy community. We have tested and reflected with others on what the best next steps are for wellbeing in Northern Ireland.

“In none of these conversations did anyone, at any point, advocate abandoning the wellbeing approach. Instead, the message was of a job left incomplete in 2017 that needed to be picked up as a matter of urgency…

“The development of a new Programme for Government, post-election, is an opportunity to articulate the golden thread between the New Decade, New Approach Agreement, the Programme for Government and Community Plans, and wider global commitments, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to deliver wellbeing outcomes.”

Moving forward

Stormont is at a crossroads, as is Northern Ireland itself – in a way that goes far beyond the usual binary of green versus orange.

The constitutional question has no chance of disappearing from public debate but, although it is often articulated well, collectively we in NI face many choices that are more fundamental than whether we remain part of the UK or pursue a United Ireland.

The whole world is changing under the force of immense challenges. These challenges can be ignored, but their effects cannot. They include climate change, ageing populations, economic stagnancy, sustainability, and trying to tame and control (or, at least, make healthy) the digital revolution.

We all have to ask what sort of place we want Northern Ireland to be. But, beyond that, and even if we come up with some coherent answers (let’s hope we do) the question of implementation remains. How do we change Northern Ireland into that place we want it to be?

And how do we measure those changes over time?

By considering that question, we get to the compelling argument for wellbeing as a measure of where we are as a society, where we’ve come from, and where we want to go – because “What we measure affects what we do, and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted.”

The strength of wellbeing, when compared with GDP, is that it cuts to heart of what people really care about - and what is really important.

GDP is far from a useless measure and will still very much have its place in policy and analysis, but there is too much room for it to diverge from the things that matter the most to people, families, neighbourhoods and Northern Ireland as a whole.

Carnegie UK itself is also trying to work with an idea of “collective wellbeing” as a useful counterpart to the individual idea of wellbeing that seems to now be established.

The definition of wellbeing has changed over time, and it seems hard to escape the idea that this change has been guided by the idea that wellbeing could become the fundamental yardstick that it now threatens to be.

As Aideen McGinley, Deputy Chair of Carnegie UK, said: “Wellbeing is everyone having what they need to live well now and in the future.  It is both social and economic, but much more than this, it is also about our environment, how we use the earth’s natural resources and our democratic participation in the decisions that affect us.”

Nothing’s perfect, but by paying more attention to wellbeing, Northern Ireland should give itself the best chance to become a better place.

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