Guest blog by Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust

Over the past two decades, the word wellbeing has increasingly been used in public policy. The relevance of the conversation in both policy and people’s individual lives suggests a deep-seated sense of unease at the way prevailing economic and policy processes are failing to enable wellbeing for all.

But there remains conceptual confusion about the core meaning of the term, what one academic referred to as ‘a cacophony’ of different meanings. This confusion brings a wide number of people into wellbeing discussions but does so at a cost – not all concepts of wellbeing have the same underpinning philosophical root and there are potentially rather contradictory implications from these different conceptions.

In the international wellbeing movement, of which WEAll is now a key player, wellbeing is understood as a way of measuring and thinking about social progress. The movement is often defined by what it is against, namely that social progress cannot be defined solely as economic progress, as measured by GDP. But there is less agreement about what the movement is for – ‘Living well’ (personal wellbeing) and ‘living well together’ (societal wellbeing) give us two broad mechanisms to do this but the policy implications of these two definitions are often in tension.

Personal wellbeing focuses on ‘living well’ and measures quality of life through subjective measures of life satisfaction and happiness (and so it is sometimes called subjective wellbeing). It has its philosophical roots in Epicurean happiness and utilitarianism. In classical utilitarianism, it is not the distribution that matters, merely the total amount of utility. That some are left behind is not necessarily problematic. A broader, but still personal, version of wellbeing has been promoted in the UK over the past two decades.

There are reasons for caution in using personal wellbeing as a guide for public policy. For one, evidence shows that there is a genetic component to wellbeing, which means that the proportion of personal wellbeing that governments can positively affect is smaller than it might first appear. Related to this, there are well known life cycle trends in personal wellbeing and distributive effects which require careful analysis and care. Environmentalists caution against the short-termism of an approach which does not factor in the potential medium to long-term environmental costs of policy decisions. And there are critiques that argue personal wellbeing is further individualisation of the role of governments, focusing on interventions on the person rather than structural changes that would alter the contexts in which people live, work, and play.

Societal wellbeing, or living well together, addresses these concerns by setting out measures that are understood by the society as being essential components of a good society. The philosophical roots are in the Aristotelian-eudemonic tradition which sees human flourishing as the goal for society. To flourish, basic needs must first be met, housing, education, health and so on. Basic needs are universal to human beings, but their realisation is relative. For example, we may agree that housing is a basic human need, but the quality of that housing, how it is to be provided and what is tolerated as good enough housing, will differ across societies.

While the absence of income, health or education may make flourishing difficult, their availability does not itself create flourishing. To flourish is understood as having a purpose in life, participating in society, having a community around oneself. Amartya Sen developed the Capabilities Approach which seeks to supplement purely objective measures with an understanding of what people can do (functionings) and be (capabilities). Societal wellbeing, based on this philosophy, is therefore a multi-dimensional concept that describes progress in terms of improvements in quality of life, material conditions and sustainability. Further, societal wellbeing includes the assessment of longer-term harm caused by actions that create short-term happiness, it is therefore a system for assessing social progress that incorporates both the present and the foreseeable future, often described as the wellbeing of future generations.

The balance between personal and societal wellbeing plays out in practice across the jurisdictions of the UK. In my experience, perception from outside Westminster is that personal wellbeing has ‘captured’ the wellbeing movement in the UK, with key proponents reinterpreting the word wellbeing as relating solely to personal wellbeing. Meanwhile the small devolved jurisdictions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have developed frameworks for measuring societal wellbeing. Their use of societal wellbeing, and the transformative impact it has on public policy, is explored in my next blog ‘The Value of Wellbeing’.

Jennifer’s book Wellbeing and Devolution: Reframing the role of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is available open access available via Springer Online.

WEAll members and Ambassadors are involved with a major new research centre at the University of York. The below article first appeared on the University of York website here.

The Leverhulme Trust Board has announced it will fund up to £10 million over the next 10 years to establish a new centre for research on biodiversity change at the University of York.

The Centre will explore scientific and societal perspectives on the Anthropocene
The Centre was one of three successful bids in the 2018 Leverhulme Research Centre awards. Other recipients are at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford.

The Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity will explore the different scientific, social and cultural perspectives on the Anthropocene, during a time of biological gains as well as losses, and human benefits as well as harms.

Professor Chris Thomas, Director of the new Centre, said: “The Centre will bring together world-leading researchers to understand the neglected societal and biological processes that underpin biodiversity gains, in addition to examining the causes and consequences of losses.

“A deep understanding of the cultural as well as biological processes that drive changes to the world’s biodiversity is needed if humanity is to live sustainably on our planet.”

The £30 million Leverhulme competition was designed to encourage original research which would establish or reshape a significant field of study and transform understanding of an important topic in contemporary societies.

Professor Gordon Marshall, Director of the Trust, said: ‘Leverhulme Trust Research Centres are a major investment in discovery-led inquiry at a time when funding for fundamental scholarship is under great pressure.

“Each Centre will embrace multi-disciplinary and international collaborations designed to bring the highest calibre of expertise to bear on these exciting areas of inquiry.”

The Centre will also benefit from expertise across the University, including researchers from the Departments of Archaeology; Biology; Computer Science; English; Environment; Health Sciences; History; Maths; Philosophy; Politics; Psychology; and Sociology.

Professor Deborah Smith, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, said: “We are delighted to have been successful in our application to establish a Leverhulme Centre at York. Professor Thomas and his colleagues will investigate some of the most significant issues influencing our planet and its populations, both human and otherwise.

“The Centre will draw upon York’s expertise in interdisciplinary research to drive world-leading investigation, involving experts both in the UK and internationally, that will change the way in which we view our world and the survival of those that inhabit it.”

Blog by WEAll’s Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams to mark the launch of their new book “The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a grown up economy” on 15 January 2019. Blog originally published on Policy Press.

As we enter 2019, there is one thing that all the commentators and punters seem to agree on: no one can really predict what will happen as the months unfold.

What form will Brexit take? Will Trump’s trade wars lead to hostility between nations or will he pull off a peace deal with North Korea? What will the gadget be that people flock to? Will 2019 be the year that plastic bags increase to 10p each in the UK and plastic straws become a thing of the past?

“So many of the factors that shape one’s life are determined in realms beyond your control.”

Against these multilayered uncertainties is the uncertainty that the majority of people have been dealing with for some time: so many of the factors that shape one’s life are determined in realms beyond your control. In boardrooms that decide your pay and hours. In algorithms that shape political decisions. In weather that is more extreme due to the pollution and emissions of the richest. In navigating social interactions charged with pressure to look a certain way, own certain things, or even to pose and pout in a certain way.

It is no wonder that more and more people are grasping for something different, whether it is apparently simple solutions offered at the ballot box or stepping outside the mainstream into alternative lifestyles.

This individual searching is mirrored in the economy writ large, which also needs to find a different direction. It needs a new project that recognises that the growth-oriented economy of the 20thcentury has delivered, but that now, many parts of the world are entering a period where growth is bringing a diminishing suite of benefits and often even increasing harm. The institutions and policies that once rendered growth positive (such as progressive taxation, collective provision of health services and education, or labour market arrangements that balanced power more equally between workers and the owners of capital) are being eroded. This is leaving the benefits of growth to be enjoyed by fewer and fewer people. Pursuit of ever more growth is often driving increasing problems that require yet more resources to fix.

“The pursuit of more poses ever greater risk for people and planet – and yet it, the idea of growth, has a stranglehold on our political and economic systems.”

The pursuit of more poses ever greater risk for people and planet – and yet it, the idea of growth, has a stranglehold on our political and economic systems.

It is time for such economies to recognise that they have arrived.

‘Arrival’ is about adequacy, being able to meet basic needs. It is primarily a material notion, a matter of having the resources to deliver a good life.

It confronts the ostensibly forbidden question of whether development has a destination.

Crucially, however, having enough resources collectively does not necessarily mean everyone individually has enough. Arrival does not imply that everything is resolved and everyone has what they need. Rather, it is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this.

“Failure to share the world’s harvest, both within and between countries, is one of the most enduring frustrations and tragedies of our time.”

Failure to share the world’s harvest, both within and between countries, is one of the most enduring frustrations and tragedies of our time. It is the cause of so many of the challenges and uncertainties that people, politicians, businesses and communities are wrestling with as 2019 unfolds.

Perhaps 2019 will be the year in which people recognise that growth has reached a point where a high standard of living could, theoretically, be universal.

Realising that possibility demands a new project – using resources in a smarter, fairer way, rather than wasting or hoarding them; focusing on the quality and distribution of economic activity and material resources. That is the task of ‘making ourselves at home’.

Once the delusion of growth as both an end in itself and the best of all possible means is discarded, discussion can then turn to what sort of economy we can create, to making better use of what has already been accumulated and, perhaps more than anything, ensuring it is fairly distributed.

Many aspects of this ‘grown up’ economy are already in existence – and indeed flourishing. From pro-social businesses to the ‘remakeries’ that are popping up in high streets. From policy makers creating incentives for the circular economy, to the city mayors using participatory budgeting.

Making ourselves at home is an economy in which there is scope for continuous improvement. Science and technology will advance. Human creativity and imagination are boundless. The economy will remain dynamic.

What changes is the ultimate goal. Making ourselves at home is an ethos of qualitative improvement that is a very different system-wide goal to the sometimes meaningless, sometimes harmful, and sometimes unnecessary, pursuit of more.


the economics of arrival_fcThe economics of arrival by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £11.99.

Political dysfunction, violence, floods, droughts, hurricanes and opioid addictions.

The news headlines are depressing and the problems seem overwhelming. From Russia to America; India to Turkey; Italy and most recently from Poland to Brazil — growing numbers of people have voted for authoritarians — presumably as a way to return to a simpler and better past.

Meanwhile, the challenges and threats keep mounting. Inequality has reached morally indefensible heights, power concentrates in ever fewer corporate hands, poverty continues to crush souls and according to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the environment is beginning to crash. If the globe was a person, we would rush them to the emergency room.

And yet, just below the surface, hidden by partisan rancor, hope and solutions can be found everywhere. Surveys continue to show that most Americans agree on far more than they disagree. They want the young to be able to thrive. They believe all people deserve real opportunities. They know our environment needs serious protection. They believe old people should live out their lives in dignity and that illnesses deserve treatment without risk of poverty or despair. Above all, they keep caring, inventing, problem-solving, together.

Collectively, we have accomplished a great deal. Mountains of wealth; medical breakthroughs; technologies that give us access, organize us, connect us. And yet debilitating poverty persists, basic medical problems remain untreated and people disappear in dark tunnels of loneliness and depression.

With so much knowledge, so many tools and such good intentions and values, how is it that we can go so wrong?

The core problem is this: the overarching, single most important goal of modern societies is growth, not human and ecological wellbeing. Our primary mandate is to increase “efficiency” and “productivity.” Make it cheaper, faster and above all, make more of it.

Busy speeding up a runaway train, we see our dominant gauges of success continue to point in a positive direction. Unemployment is down, GDP is up. The stock market keeps hitting record territory. In service of growth, the economy and with it politics, no longer adequately reflect our realities.

The deeper reality is this: today, in an overpopulated world choking on stuff, a focus on more has become both absurd and dangerous. Three recent international studies all came to the same conclusion: We have reached very real limits to growth.

Our train needs a new track.

One focused on a greater vision of human and ecological wellbeing, one leading to real human prosperity anchored in environmental health and sustainability. An emphasis on what is actually good for us — more connection, more opportunities, less inequality. Above all: a healthy environment and stable communities.

There is little difference between Democrats and Republicans, but neither can answer a simple question: how to grow indefinitely on a finite planet? Neither can answer why growth would even be desirable, when its drawbacks range from resource depletion to pollution, from accidents to addictions, from more miles commuted to more hours worked?

No we must grow, as economists and politicians keep telling us. Trust the market. Trust science and technology. Trust something, just so long as you don’t question growth.

As more aspects of our lives turn into contributions to the growth mantra, our focus on quality of life — on community, on meaningful work, on family and love, on a natural world that can nurture our children — inevitably shrivels.

The good thing: There is a growing number of people whom are building companies that don’t depend on fossil fuels, cities that serve people rather than cars, communities that don’t generate poverty or homelessness, health-care systems that don’t leave anyone behind, regions that provide security and jobs for everyone. On the frontiers, we’re learning how to create prosperity without waste — waste of resources, people, potentials.

Solutions come from every part of society: socially and environmentally responsible investing (ESG), builders and architects creating improved LEED standards in construction, doughnut economics that explains how to create human prosperity within the boundaries of natural systems, to cyclical production systems that eliminate waste. Across the spectrum, people are working on ways to build regenerative economies focused on human and ecological wellbeing rather than blind growth.

The future is bright — if only we can get politics to catch up with what is already happening all around us.

Dirk Philipsen is an economic historian teaching at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and author of “The Little Big Number – How GDP Came to Rule the World, and What to Do About It” (Princeton UP, 2015).

This article was originally published on 

WEAll members submitted their recommendations for ‘must-read’ books  to understand the case for, and path towards, a wellbeing economy.

Here’s the result – 15 important books that provide answers, inspiration and hope.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive – comment below with your own recommendations.


Alphabetically by author:

  1. An Economy of Wellbeing: Mark Anielski
  2. Change Everything: Christian Felber
  3. Wellbeing Economy: Lorenzo Fioramonti
  4. The Divide: Jason Hickel
  5. New Economy Business: Margo Hoek
  6. The Age of Thrivability: Michelle Holliday
  7. Prosperity Without Growth: Tim Jackson
  8. The High Price of Materialism: Tim Kasser
  9. A Finer Future: Hunter Lovins, Stewart Wallis, John Fullerton and Anders Wijkman
  10. Economics Unmasked: Manfred Max-Neef
  11. The Spirit Level: Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
  12. Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth
  13. Small is Beautiful: E.F. Schumacher
  14. Local Dollars Local Sense – Michael Shuman
  15. How to Thrive in the Next Economy: John Thackara

Guest blog by Henry Leveson-Gower and Teresa Linzer (Promoting Economic Pluralism)

Post the Crash, we seemed set for economic revolution. 10 years later and here we are – still waiting, entangled in an economic system that is just as addicted to GDP growth as it was 10 years ago. So, how best to bring about the long overdue revolution? What ways are there to contribute to shifting and opening up the narrow systemic focus, from mere growth for its own sake to sustainability, wellbeing and genuine prosperity?

At Promoting Economic Pluralism, we think that part of the answer is changing economics education. The language of economics is the language of power and many students are required to learn it both in economics departments and as part of interdisciplinary masters. At the moment it is generally taught as if there was only one way of thinking about economics and that certainly involves endless growth.

However that is not true of all courses: some lecturers are more pluralist in how they teach economics. This means recognising that there is more than one way of thinking about the economy and encouraging critical reflection. These lecturers draw from a wide range of economic traditions such as ecological, institutional, complexity and post-Keynesian economics. Although this is often referred to as new economics, in fact its roots go back to the 1930s and further. There is a wealth of scholarship and literature, which is largely ignored by the mainstream.

This provides the space for the main economic theology of growth, self-interest, shareholder dominance etc to be challenged. It gives students tools to then question the policy and perspectives based on economic orthodoxy that they are likely to encounter later in work. It also provides ideas on which to base new innovative approaches to tackling the social and environmental challenges we face. Students are likely to come ideas of social enterprise, wellbeing, ecological limits and more, that mainstream economics would ignore.

We are therefore planning to raise the profile and legitimacy of these types of courses so students are encouraged to join them and other universities are encouraged to put them on.

We have chosen to start with masters courses as university departments have much more flexibility over what they can teach at this level. Students from these courses will also be entering the ‘real world’ very soon to use their learning.

There are many departments and centres teaching these courses as can be seen here. It is happening in the same high ranking universities where the economic departments themselves defend the status quo. However the courses have a whole range of labels. For the uninitiated, it is not obvious they take a pluralist approach to economics.

Hence we want to co-create an accreditation system so they can have a common identity and ‘brand’.  The point of this is not to determine what economics is ‘right’ or which courses are ‘best’. It is to build a shared sense between those inside and outside of academia of what economic teaching looks like that fosters creativity and critical thinking to address real world issues and genuinely transform the economic system. Then potential students can easily and confidently find these courses.  We will also of course work closely with Rethinking Economics and the student movement to magnify this effect.

To turn this idea into reality, we want to invite you to participate in actually co-creating the scheme.

This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to get involved in the detail or devote huge amounts of time to it. We will ensure people can give their views on the principles and broad approach as easily as possible. Please sign-up here to be involved and if you first want to find out more, sign up for a webinar here. And please make sure to also register your public support for this initiative here! It is crucial that we demonstrate a diverse and wide-ranging support for this initiative. Your voice matters.

Join a webinar.

For more info about why we think this is the road to much needed change in economics check out our website and have a look at our latest blog here.

238 leading academics wrote an open letter to the EU this weekend, calling for the prioritisation of stability and wellbeing over GDP.

The experts, including WEAll Ambassador Kate Pickett, mention the vital role of WEAll in connecting the existing and  emerging wellbeing economy movement.

Read the full letter below or on the Guardian website here, where you can also see all the signatories.

If you agree with their call, you can add your voice by signing this petition to the EU.

The open letter

“This week, scientists, politicians, and policymakers are gathering in Brussels for a landmark conference. The aim of this event, organised by members of the European parliament from five different political groups, alongside trade unions and NGOs, is to explore possibilities for a “post-growth economy” in Europe.

For the past seven decades, GDP growth has stood as the primary economic objective of European nations. But as our economies have grown, so has our negative impact on the environment. We are now exceeding the safe operating space for humanity on this planet, and there is no sign that economic activity is being decoupled from resource use or pollution at anything like the scale required. Today, solving social problems within European nations does not require more growth. It requires a fairer distribution of the income and wealth that we already have.


Growth is also becoming harder to achieve due to declining productivity gains, market saturation, and ecological degradation. If current trends continue, there may be no growth at all in Europe within a decade. Right now the response is to try to fuel growth by issuing more debt, shredding environmental regulations, extending working hours, and cutting social protections. This aggressive pursuit of growth at all costs divides society, creates economic instability, and undermines democracy.

Those in power have not been willing to engage with these issues, at least not until now. The European commission’s Beyond GDP project became GDP and Beyond. The official mantra remains growth — redressed as “sustainable”, “green”, or “inclusive” – but first and foremost, growth. Even the new UN sustainable development goalsinclude the pursuit of economic growth as a policy goal for all countries, despite the fundamental contradiction between growth and sustainability.

The good news is that within civil society and academia, a post-growth movement has been emerging. It goes by different names in different places:décroissance, Postwachstumsteady-state or doughnut economicsprosperity without growth, to name a few. Since 2008, regular degrowth conferenceshave gathered thousands of participants. A new global initiative, the Wellbeing Economies Alliance (or WE-All), is making connections between these movements, while a European research network has been developing new “ecological macroeconomic models”. Such work suggests that it’s possible to improve quality of life, restore the living world, reduce inequality, and provide meaningful jobs – all without the need for economic growth, provided we enact policies to overcome our current growth dependence.

Some of the changes that have been proposed include limits on resource use, progressive taxation to stem the tide of rising inequality, and a gradual reduction in working time. Resource use could be curbed by introducing a carbon tax, and the revenue could be returned as a dividend for everyone or used to finance social programmes. Introducing both a basic and a maximum income would reduce inequality further, while helping to redistribute care work and reducing the power imbalances that undermine democracy. New technologies could be used to reduce working time and improve quality of life, instead of being used to lay off masses of workers and increase the profits of the privileged few.

Given the risks at stake, it would be irresponsible for politicians and policymakers not to explore possibilities for a post-growth future. The conference happening in Brussels is a promising start, but much stronger commitments are needed. As a group of concerned social and natural scientists representing all Europe, we call on the European Union, its institutions, and member states to:

1. Constitute a special commission on post-growth futures in the EU parliament. This commission should actively debate the future of growth, devise policy alternatives for post-growth futures, and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal.

2. Incorporate alternative indicators into the macroeconomic framework of the EU and its member states. Economic policies should be evaluated in terms of their impact on human wellbeing, resource use, inequality, and the provision of decent work. These indicators should be given higher priority than GDP in decision-making.

3. Turn the stability and growth pact (SGP) into a stability and wellbeing pact. The SGP is a set of rules aimed at limiting government deficits and national debt. It should be revised to ensure member states meet the basic needs of their citizens, while reducing resource use and waste emissions to a sustainable level.

4. Establish a ministry for economic transition in each member state. A new economy that focuses directly on human and ecological wellbeing could offer a much better future than one that is structurally dependent on economic growth.”