Wellness Among the Ruins

Looking at the papers in the cafe this morning, my roving satirical eye caught this piece by Dan Button, of the New Economics Foundation, in which he argues that the government should prioritise well being over GDP.

Yet last week, New Zealand broke new ground by eschewing GDP in favour of wellbeing as a guiding indicator when setting budgets and assessing government policy. Bids to the Treasury for money from now on will not only need a cost-benefit analysis, but an assessment of their wellbeing impact. Decisions about spending will be made on the basis of a project’s contribution to the wellbeing of the population, measured through four dimensions: human capital; social capital; natural capital; and financial and physical capital. It follows the Welsh government’s innovative Well-being of Future Generations Act, which places a legal requirement on public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing impact of their decisions.

These are radical steps in the right direction that the UK should learn from by adopting a broader range of indicators when deciding how to spend money. Government departments should have a legal duty to routinely assess new policy for its impact on a broader range of criteria, including wellbeing. If improving quality of life is not the point of government policy, then what is?

The concept of wellbeing seems a bit overused and dated at the moment. It brings to mind Gwyneth Paltrow and her alt health company GOOP, which apparently advises women, in the pursuit of wellness and sexual health, to insert jade eggs into an intimate orifice. I am sure this is not what Dan Button means when he says that ‘departments should have a legal duty to routinely assess new policy for its impact on a broader range of criteria, including wellbeing.’ But even in the more prosaic political sphere, we’ve been here before.

In late 2010 prime minister David Cameron wanted to ‘make happiness the new GDP.’ This is how the Guardian reported it at the time:

He is sticking to a policy commitment he made before the economic crash when growth figures were still rosy. He said: ‘It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference, he added: ‘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.’

We know the rest of this story – as Button says, ‘most of the population saw their living standards stagnate or fall, and austerity measures picked up pace.’ But Button goes on to claim that: ‘An economy with wellbeing at its heart would make it much harder to make such claims, and harder to enforce a policy such as austerity again.’

This seems unlikely. A focus on general wellbeing is usually a excuse for failures on real economics. In 2016 the Leave campaign and numerous Brexit commentators told us that leaving the EU would mean exciting new trade deals and money for the NHS. Now, with industry walking away and no signs of austerity letting up, these same commentators tell us to forget about the numbers, the point of the project is about restoring national pride and intangible British values. (Boring old Remainers, banging on about people’s jobs!)

Of course British values are real, and important. My argument is only that in quitting the antibiotics of GDP we could end up having to insert into ourselves the jade eggs of national sovereignty.

What is wellbeing? Button makes many good points but can’t seem to define it, and for a good reason, because wellbeing is subjective. It would be a hell of a thing for the state to decide what constitutes wellbeing and happiness, particularly as we British have become rather judgemental about how others enjoy themselves. We drink too much, smoke too much, watch reality TV. The difficulty is that government isn’t set up to foster subjective human emotions, it can only provide the resources, time and space for people to foster wellbeing in themselves and their communities and pursue their own happiness.

I’m reminded of Rachel Clarke‘s medical memoir Your Life in My Hands. Though I don’t have my copy to hand, one passage stayed with me. Dr Clarke wrote about working impossible shifts in UK hospitals and every now and again being sent internal mail offering yoga sessions and other wellness activities that the doctors could enjoy during lunch breaks.

We work through lunch break, said Clarke. We don’t have time for this.

Meanwhile, workloads soared and clinicians regularly burned out from stress. Next to nothing was done.

For all Dan Button’s good intentions, I suspect that any attempt to incorporate ‘wellness’ into the heart of British government would end in some scaled-up version of the pointless mailshots Dr Clarke describes, while the rest of the country firefights. It’s about time the state quit its emotionalist thinking and concentrated on keeping the lights on. To paraphrase P J O’Rourke: what we need is less wellness, more lunch.

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