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What does wellbeing mean? Dr Sam Thompson Senior Research Fellow.

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Presentation on theme: "What does wellbeing mean? Dr Sam Thompson Senior Research Fellow."— Presentation transcript:

1 What does wellbeing mean? Dr Sam Thompson Senior Research Fellow

2 Approaches to defining wellbeing Preference satisfaction People are rational and know how to improve their own wellbeing. If you give people maximum chance to satisfy their preferences (e.g. more choice, more income) they will end up happier.

3 Approaches to defining wellbeing Preference satisfaction Objective list Wellbeing is highest when people’s objective needs (e.g. for security, health, freedom, etc) are met.

4 Approaches to defining wellbeing Preference satisfaction Objective list Hedonic Wellbeing is positive affect – that is, a relatively positive ratio of pleasant to unpleasant emotions, moods and feelings.

5 Approaches to defining wellbeing Preference satisfaction Objective list Hedonic Evaluative Wellbeing is positive self- evaluation – feeling that life overall is going well.

6 Approaches to defining wellbeing Preference satisfaction Objective list Hedonic Evaluative Flourishing Wellbeing is about fulfilling potential and functioning well in the world.

7 Approaches to defining wellbeing Preference satisfaction Objective list Hedonic Evaluative Flourishing So much for definitions…. what about discourse?

8 Wellbeing as success / progress... Gross National Product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising and… the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy or their play… the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. Robert Kennedy, 1968

9 Wellbeing as success / progress Criticisms of GDP (as a proxy for welfare) are well- known – Extremely crude – Insensitive to distribution – “Defensive” expenditure – Deals poorly with non-market goods and externalities – Fails to account for subjective experience Can overplay GDP-as-progress argument (govt actually measures all kinds of stuff)… but huge symbolic importance.

10 Wellbeing as success / progress “Economic performance is not intrinsically interesting. No-one is concerned in a genuine sense about the level of gross national product last year or about next year’s exchange rate. People have no innate interest in the money supply, inflation, growth, inequality, unemployment …. Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier.” (Oswald, 1980)

11 Wellbeing as success / progress

12 Wellbeing as mental health c PhysicalMental Health e.g. Eating fruit and vegetables Taking regular exercise Strength and flexibility ??? Illness e.g. Cancer Obesity Heart disease e.g. Depression Anxiety Psychosis

13 Keyes’ “dual continua” model Mental illness No mental illness Flourishing Languishing

14 Wellbeing as mental health Strong association between population mean and % experiencing difficulties

15 Wellbeing as mental health

16 Wellbeing as (part of) sustainable development Brundtland Commission (1987) – SD is that which – “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. UK’s 1999 SD strategy – SD is – “ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come” (DETR, 1999) strategy Securing the Future, SD includes – “Ensuring a strong, healthy and just society. Meeting the diverse needs of all people in existing and future communities, promoting personal well-being, social cohesion and inclusion, and creating equal opportunity for all”

17 The meaning of wellbeing “Wellbeing” performs a number of discursive roles – Variously stands for “progress”, “success”, “quality of life”, “mental health”… – As such, fills (or, at least, attempts to reclaim) spaces that have been occupied by other approaches Doesn’t mean that it is meaningless or vacuous – Common theme in the current debate is a concern with how people experience their lives – Reflected in an emphasis on subjective, self-report measures (which Peter will tell you all about in a moment)

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19 How might focusing on wellbeing change policy? “Next time we have a comprehensive spending review, let's not just guess what effect various policies will have on people's wellbeing. Let’s actually know.” UK government source, commenting on plans to measure national well-being, November 2010

20 How might focusing on wellbeing change policy? Reconsidering existing priorities for external conditions of people’s lives – e.g. unemployment, air pollution, planning Policies which impact on time use and activities – e.g. sleep quality, commuting/transport, time balance, volunteering Policies which aim to build personal resources – e.g. early years education, resilience training Attention to the way services are delivered – e.g. co-production

21 Is it all just spin? The tone of criticism has changed from lefty utopian dreaming… – “.. if any of these foppish utilitarian suggestions [for measuring national wellbeing] were put into practice, nothing short of national manic-depression would ensue” (Anthony Daniels, The Telegraph, 2006) to evil right-wing conspiracy – a “cynical and pernicious” project to distract attention from the cuts agenda (Letter to The Psychologist, January 2011)

22 Whose responsibility is wellbeing? “To those who say that all this sounds like a distraction from the serious business of government, I would say that finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is actually the serious business of government” David Cameron, 25 th November 2010 But we need to distinguish carefully between… – …making people happy – …understanding the conditions that support happiness

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24 How much is “plenty”?


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