Good life, good living and national wellbeing

Dr David Harvie, School of Management, University of Leicester:

Dr David HarvieIn the UK, mention ‘the good life’ and the chances are you’ll evoke images of Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal in the 1970s sitcom of that name, digging up the garden of their Surbiton semi and drinking homemade peapod burgundy. But in parts of contemporary Latin America, in particular Bolivia and Ecuador, the good life, or more accurately the good living – buen vivir – has a slightly different meaning.

Buen vivir is a concept which means life in harmony and equilibrium – between men and women, between different communities and, above all, between human beings and the natural environment of which they are part. It means living well – enjoying a good life, if you like – but living sustainably and as part of a community, without exploiting others or the ecosystem. In fact, the term could roughly be translated as ‘collective well-being’. Although undoubtedly a number of UK citizens are enjoying a good life of one sort or another, there isn’t much evidence that we are practising good living. Which is where the Office for National Statistics (ONS) comes in, with its new ‘measures of national well-being’.

The new measures can be traced to a commission established by French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the beginning of 2008. Sarkozy invited Nobel prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank Chief Economist turned vituperative critic, and Amartya Sen, whose work has inspired the UN’s Human Development Index, along with two dozen other prominent economists, to examine the adequacy of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and GDP per person as indicators of individual and societal well-being and happiness. The resulting report pointed out numerous problems with GDP. Noting that well-being is ‘multidimensional’, it instead proposed that a ‘dashboard’ of various indicators should be used to guide policy.

In November 2010 David Cameron announced that he had instructed Britain’s ONS to develop measures of well-being, seeking to measure ‘our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving, not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.’ According to the Prime Minister’s Office, ‘potential indicators include health, levels of education, inequalities in income and the environment’.

These developments are exciting. It’s exciting that so many prominent members of the economics mainstream are questioning the value of economic value – most perfectly captured by measures such as GDP. And it’s exciting that the new ONS measures of ‘national well-being’ may open up spaces in Britain in which society more generally can discuss how much it really values value.

To give some everyday examples: we may value free time, time with our kids, time to cook a meal for friends, but our expression of these values doesn’t ‘count’ in the GDP figures. What ‘counts’ instead is time spent earning a wage, money spent on professional childcarers and restaurant meals.

The difficulty lies less with the proposed new indicators per se, than with their relationship to ‘policy’. GDP, GDP per person and the headline economic growth (the rate at which GDP is growing – or contracting) matter not because statistical agencies around the world measure them, but because they express some fundamental truth about our society and the way it is organised. Economic growth measures, more or less accurately, the rate at which ever more aspects of our lives, our livelihoods and the environment in which we live them are being drawn into, and conditioned by, economic relationships – the market. Economic growth is a good proxy for new profit-making potential for business. And, like the hammerhead shark that must keep moving in order to breath and live, the capitalist economy must keep growing else it will die.

There is little economic value and little profit in citizens (wage-)working less – and therefore having more time to do the other important things we value. Any notion of a ‘work-life balance’ is bad for business – and hence bad for the economy.

Increasing ‘national well-being’, then, is not so much a question of attempting to measure it, but of transforming an economy in which the profit-motive is dominant. In a sense, this is obvious. We already have most of the measures that would be clustered on the dashboard proposed by Stiglitz, Sen and their colleagues. And the readings they display aren’t reassuring. We know inequality has widened enormously, with the Gini coefficient higher now than it has been at any time in the past three decades, and the income-share of UK’s richest 1% up from 4% in the mid-1970s to well over 10% now. We also know – from the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies briefing – that the Cameron government’s austerity measures will only make inequality worse. We know that we are working harder and working longer, with Britons working on average 45 hours each week (compared with a European average of 40-odd hours), with unsurprisingly malign effects on our health. We also know that – for those still in employment – this is getting significantly worse in the context of recession and austerity. We know that climate change is making our environment less hospitable to human life, and also that governments’ responses have, to date, been woefully inadequate.

So the question – and the challenge – is one of transformation rather of measure. And this brings us back to Latin America and buen vivir or ‘good living’. What distinguishes buen vivir is its explicitly political nature. It’s not just an idea. It’s a political project for life that has emerged from social movements and (mostly indigenous) communities. It is born of practices of participatory democracy, which involve matters of importance being discussed by all whom they concern, consensus being sought whenever possible, and leaders – frequently chosen by lot, similar to ancient Greek democracy and our own present-day jury system –  who can only ‘command by obeying’. (Clearly this sort of democracy bears no resemblance to the democracy of Latin America’s frequently-corrupt political systems – or, indeed, British representative democracy, in which politicians are able to mislead the public and renege on manifesto pledges with impunity.) Buen vivir is grounded in social relationships far richer and more human than those mediated by the discipline of money, ‘competition’ and ‘efficiency’ and the latest set of league tables.

The Office for National Statistics’ plans to measure ‘national well-being’ are exciting for their potential to spark debates on the deeper questions which underlie issues of inequality, health, education and so on. But to develop and enhance our ‘national well-being’, we will need more than measures. Nor will such a project will be realised by politicians. Rather, we will all – 60 million of us, six and a half billion of us – need to keep asking the questions: What do we value? How do we practice democracy? What sort of planet do we wish to bequeath our grandchildren? And keep asking them. And see where they take us.

Dr David Harvie is Senior Lecturer in Finance and Political Economy in the University of Leicester School of Management.


  1. Vic Taylolr
    Posted 06/04/2011 at 15:32 | Permalink

    It seems to me that this topic entirely misses the point. The issue is not people’s happiness but their unhappiness. If the government were truly interested in improving peoples lives they would be trying to deal with what makes people unhappy. We are all born to be happy. Just look at the way a baby expresses unhappiness by crying to be fed but once that unhappiness has been dealt with expresses joy, contentment & perhaps bliss. We are all of us intrinsically happy until something causes us to be unhappy.
    In modern western society there are very many ways in which people are made unhappy deliberately. Just think about the use of unhappiness as a marketing tool. If you want to be happy buy this or that glug to paste on your face or to inhale into your lungs. Eat these wonderful food like substances this will make you feel good & when you are obese take these wonderful slimming pills.

    So much of the misunderstanding about ‘happiness’ stems from the mistaken assumption that happiness has to be pursued as the Americans would have it. This is a nonsense idea. Happiness is not to be found out there somewhere on the range. It is not something to be hunted down like a buffalo. Happiness is an inherited condition of all humans (perhaps of all species).
    The essential measure of people’s well being is the extent of their unhappiness.


  2. Posted 30/03/2011 at 17:34 | Permalink

    The Government means well I think in starting this debate; but because the UK is experiencing a challenging time financially which is the fault both of greedy/lazy banking and a profligate government previously, we have to take stock and see what makes us feel content. I prefer that word to happy. Travelling as I do regularly to India about which I write as both an author but also blogger and travel editor I see so much that is challenging and know that we in the UK are very blessed, even with our current economic woes.


  3. Eben
    Posted 24/02/2011 at 22:35 | Permalink

    My concern about this proposal is that it will close off public involvement with the idea. Rather than ways of improving well-being coming from the bottom up, the notion of national happiness will be tied into a managerial structure and be seen as another thing for political parties to compete over. If we want buen vivir then we need to start with refreshing and extending democracy.


    LX Moderator Reply:

    Thanks Eben.
    The ONS appears to be making a consolidated effort to consult on national happiness – a consultation was held last week at the University of Leicester at which some of the contributors to the debate on this site were asked to present their views – however, do you think once this consultation period is over that it’s likely to be the end of public involvement in the matter? And as a result broader society may disengage with the initiative. Given that extending democracy seems unlikely in the short to medium term, do you think think the plans to measure national happiness are ultimately destined for well-intentioned failure?


    Toby Reply:

    Is it not right that political parties should compete over it? They compete at the moment over GDP) growth. I see the ONS’ iniiative as a way to objectively illustrate something that is subjective. Provided government doesn’t get too involved in specifying the methodology I’m broadly happy with that.


  4. Posted 24/02/2011 at 19:25 | Permalink

    Is happiness the same thing as wellbeing? Wellbeing could be defined in terms of provisions for health and education, etc., I have all these things, but, I am not happy. Happiness for me is the satisfaction of a person’s psychological/spiritual needs such as belonging and developing as a person.

    Providing for the wellbeing of the citizenry is the fundamental purpose of government, GDP is simply a means to that end. Measuring the provisions for wellbeing such as hospitals would be a better indicator, however it does not measure happiness. Provisions for wellbeing, such as hospitals, link to physical survival, but, as soon as the basic physical needs are met such as health, food, safety, housing, and jobs, they cease to be a source of happiness – once you have fed well hunger ceases to be an issue.

    We observe that basic needs such as hunger are all important until a person is no longer hungry. Herzberg describes these needs as ‘hygiene factors’, important when they are absent, but, cease to have importance once they have been met. The absence of pain is not joy, wellbeing is not happiness. The sources of joy, continuing happiness, happiness without limitation, are psychological such as personal growth, worth, achievement, belonging and contribution to society, Herzberg describes these as ‘motivators’.

    From a Government perspective it makes very good sense to put in place the infrastructure for happiness, e.g. schools and hospitals, but, at the same time produce policies aimed at ‘motivators’ and influencing the culture of the country. The same applies within any organisation and consistency is important, all policies need to be aligned, government, employers, schools, etc. How often do well motivated school leavers find themselves in miserable jobs. Should I add journalism to the list, can we have a happy society if its misery that sells news, and would happy news result in complacency? I am reminded that Zurich regularly emerges at the top of the best city to live surveys much to the puzzlement of many living there!

    At the present time the forces of well being and happiness appear to be diminishing in society and the workplace. We see consequences of demotivation, stress, and ill health, some would argue that provides the incentive to do better – it might provided there is hope.


    LX Moderator Reply:

    Excellent comment, John. Thanks.
    Anybody want to come back on John’s point that “At the present time the forces of well being and happiness appear to be diminishing in society and the workplace.”? Does that reflect other people’s experiences?


    Chris J Reply:

    I wouldn’t disagree with the core of John’s point but it’s a bit of a concern if well-being and happiness are diminishing in society and the workplace given we enjoy living standards unimagined by previous generations. During times of national trauma, such as the Second World War, national “well-being” at times seems almost higher by oral and written histories of the time.

    Part of me wants to say to people today, “stop moaning and appreciate how lucky you are by historical standards”. But the more sophisticated side of me is concerned as to how, given the prosperity and security we enjoy, so many people can be unhappy and feel things are getting worse.

    I suppose this ties into the broken Britain rhetoric discussed elsewhere on the blog. Where politicians are almost egging on a state of national self-loathing for their own ends.


    LX Moderator Reply:

    Thanks Chris. I agree there is a lot of crossover with the points Angus and Edmund are making on the broken Britain debate stream.


    Graham Rippon Reply:

    Would ask the question – do we work to live, or do we live to work?
    Politicians of all shades see us as contributors to GDP – not as people.
    I think this is an opportunity to make that point made.
    As for “happiness” – surely it depends on individual circumstances. I’m “happy” now and have been before, but there have been many times whin I wasn’t. I dpubt very much that happines, or wellbeing, is a suitable subject for scientific research. Though I suppose a general trend might be useful to the Government – especially one with wishy-washy Lib-Dems involved.


  5. Paul Richmond
    Posted 24/02/2011 at 13:12 | Permalink

    I was intrigued by your report of the South American “buen vivar” proponents using lots to select leaders, as in the Athenian democracy during the Periclean period. This seems to tally with some recent findings concerning better ways to promote people in organisations, as reported last year :-

    University of Catania scientists Andrea Rapisarda, Cesare Garofaloa and Alessandro Pluchino’s random promotion theory says that an organization that promotes employees at random, as opposed to by merit is more efficient … The Random Promotion theory was awarded an Ig Nobel, which honors “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think and in the process spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology”.

    You should, of course, be aware that the vast majority of inhabitants of ancient Athens were not entitled to be entered into the lottery for public posts because they were variously slaves or women or foreigners.


    LX Moderator Reply:

    Nice comment, Paul. Those who are interested in Random Promotion theory, which calculated how a pick-at-random promotion scheme compares with other, more enshrined methods, may find this overview article in the Guardian useful. Full details are in the journal Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications.


    David Harvie Reply:

    Yes, I am aware that slaves, women and foreigners were excluded from ancient Greek democracy. Their labour was essential as it allowed free men the freedom to participate in democratic life. But I’d argue that modern technology, “labour-saving” devices, etc. have the potential to allow *all* of us to participate now. On this, I’d recommend C.L.R. James’s lovely pamphlet Every Cook Can Govern, first published in 1956 and available here:


  6. Posted 24/02/2011 at 10:13 | Permalink

    I think any focus on establishing some sort of measurement of our national well-being is a great thing. It will set a bench mark that future Governments will try and improve against and will become a key vote winner or loser. In my view the only reason we’re born is to try and have as much fun as possible and live as long as possible (whilst doing our best to leave a positive impact on all of those around us!). Anything that can be done to improve our time on the planet must be viewed as proactive to our society as long as it’s not to the detriment of others in the future.


  7. Not David Cameron
    Posted 23/02/2011 at 19:49 | Permalink

    I find the fact the left is tying itself in knots over this issue a little amusing. On one hand people are against ‘materialist’ ways of measuring progress eg GDP whilst others claim the move to measure well-being is some sort of bourgeois front to hoodwink the masses. I frankly can’t see much harm in taking a broader view of national well-being. It may prove elusive as a concept but it’s better than micro managing and counting every aspect of society in the way New Labour tried and failed to do.


  8. Roving Mike
    Posted 23/02/2011 at 08:42 | Permalink

    But what a coincidence. The very month the Government announce sweeping cuts and the nation teeters on the edge of a double dip recession they announce new plans, not to focus on the economic performance of the country but on an esoteric concept of “well-being”. All sounds a bit fishy to me. Opiates for the masses?


    LX Moderator Reply:

    I see your point, Mike. In your view, does the perceived political agenda negate the validity and value of a national happiness index? Is the attempt to measure the national well-being a worthy pursuit in it’s own right?


    Roving Mike Reply:

    It may or may not be. I’m sure there are those better placed to comment like David.

    But the current direction of the government is almost a validation of marxian thinking on the issue. Disguise the reality of the economic base of society by focussing on a fluffy superstructure around it.

    Maybe I’m being a bit negative but one gets an overwhelming feeling that the timing of this debate is very convenient to the coalition.


    Thomas Jefferson Reply:

    To answer Mike’s question for him, no it doesn’t. As the blog argues correctly, measuring well-being is a good thing to attempt to do regardless of the politics raging around it. We should be reassured that the ONS are the ones leading the debate and discussion as to how we might achieve such a measurement.


    Roving Mike Reply:

    To answer my own question for me, yes it does to an extent. Who funds the ONS? Who decided we should debate the issue nationally?


  9. Thomas Jefferson
    Posted 21/02/2011 at 17:24 | Permalink

    I think the danger with the debate over national well-being is that it becomes seen as an attempt by the Government to divert attention from reductions in public spending. Whereas this blog makes some key points about why measuring well-being is important in its own right.

    Many people disagree with the cuts. Others, such as myself, think that on balance they are largely necessary. But what we think about cuts on the one hand and the importance of measuring well-being on the other are seperate issues. Don’t let us damn the debate on well-being out of some warped conspiracy theory about Government motives.

    I wish the ONS’ work well.


Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *