The meaning of wellbeing | Guest blog

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.

2 Comments

  • lisa February 20, 2019 1:01 pm

    Great article!

  • lisa February 20, 2019 1:03 pm

    From Nigel Cohen:
    “Great summary of what wellbeing means. It is especially important that we have a clear understanding of wellbeing, if this is our target. There are so many different concepts, this summary is especially helpful.

    Thanks for sharing it.”

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