Wellbeing and happiness

These two concepts are different: conflating them can undermine the potential for progressive change

Ian BacheWilliam Davies’s recent (2015) book, The happiness industry: how the government and big business sold us well-being, provides a warning of the risks associated with the acceleration of interest in the promotion of happiness. It views the happiness agenda as an attempt to solve the problems that capitalism has created through approaches that end up ‘blaming – and medicating – individuals for their own misery’ and ignoring the context that created them. Psychological approaches are seen as being used by governments to avoid ‘looking in the mirror’ and confronting the serious political and economic questions that face societies. In short, the happiness agenda is employed as a deliberate strategy by governments and big business to distract from a focus on the real causes of disempowerment, stress and depression.

There is much of value in Davies’s critique of the relationship between modern capitalism and its effects on happiness. He identifies a ‘plague of materialism, which undermines our connectedness, leaving many of us isolated and lonely’ and highlights how unhappiness and depression are more concentrated in unequal societies with strongly materialist values. He also shows how workplaces increasingly put an emphasis on community and psychological commitment, albeit in the context of ‘longer-term economic trends towards atomization and insecurity’. In this sense, he argues, we have an economic model ‘which mitigates against precisely the psychological attributes it depends upon’. It’s difficult to take issue with these core arguments.

The problem with the book is what is left unsaid. At the root of this problem is his focus on a particular conception of wellbeing – individual happiness – while often using the terms happiness and wellbeing interchangeably. In blurring this distinction, he largely ignores conceptions of wellbeing that incorporate analysis of the effects of the wider political economy and treat individual happiness as only one indicator among many of ‘what matters’.

A recent conference in Sheffield brought together academics from a range of disciplines (including politics, philosophy, law, and economics), policy-makers, think-tanks and third sector organisations to discuss the politics of wellbeing. It heard many critical voices on how wellbeing has been constructed and employed in different contexts. The conference reflected an ongoing debate on the distinction between narrower conceptions of wellbeing that draw on utilitarian notions of individual happiness (or subjective wellbeing), on the one hand, and broader conceptions that emphasises the centrality of the relationship between individuals and their social contexts, on the other. Within this debate there is often recognition of the limitations of a focus on individual happiness alone, but also appreciation that people’s subjective evaluations of their lives have value. For most, such evaluations should have a role in shaping policy: but only alongside a range of other indicators.

We do not have to look beyond government to find evidence of this wider view of wellbeing. Take, for example, the UK government’s own wellbeing framework, developed by the Office for National Statistics. This identifies ten important domains of wellbeing, including health, work, education and income. In this framework, personal wellbeing is just one of these domains and only one indicator in this domain relates directly to individual happiness. Internationally, the OECD’s Better Life Index has a similar range of domains, with ‘life satisfaction’ alongside seven others, including housing, income jobs and so on. No-one is suggesting that these frameworks are perfect, but they do acknowledge wider processes as important and do not reduce the policy agenda to one of individual responsibility.

These arguments are echoed in policy ideas on wellbeing developed by think-tanks such as the new economics foundation and the Legatum Institute. They are also central to the recommendations of a recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, which in 2014 emphasised the close connection between wellbeing and the economy. Among its conclusions were:

  • A high wellbeing economy demands not just any jobs but good jobs
  • Stable and secure employment should be the primary goal of economic policy
  • Wellbeing evidence should be used in the setting of the minimum wage
  • Firms should publish information about pay ratios
  • Promoting shorter and more flexible hours would help to tackle the twin problems of over- and under-work.

In short, there is considerable understanding in wellbeing communities of the problems of defining the agenda too narrowly around individual happiness. Nevertheless, some of Davies’s observations have resonance here. In particular, his point that research on individual happiness should be open and ethical is well taken.

The main problem, however, with Davies’s tendency to conflate the narrow focus on individual happiness with wider conceptions of wellbeing is that it undermines the more progressive elements of the wellbeing community. Not only that, but this conflation is often deployed as a deliberate strategy to undermine the potentially progressive political challenge offered by wellbeing by those who have most to lose from such a challenge – the very targets that Davies seeks to attack. Thus, when Davies argues that there must ‘at least be some cause for suspicion’ when ‘the doyens of the World Economic Forum seize an agenda with so much gusto’, he might also want to employ the same logic to look at who is seeking to shift the terms of the wellbeing debate away from its wider focus. Otherwise, the risk is that the scope for progressive politics emerging from this agenda will end before it has seriously begun.

In short, Davies tends to highlight all of the dangers of the wellbeing agenda and none of the potential. Yes, there are risks involved in promoting wellbeing in politics and policy, but there are also opportunities – and significant risks in leaving thing as they are. We need to remain wary of the risks, of course. But, for as long as a window of opportunity for this issue remains open, we should argue strongly for a wide conception of wellbeing that demands a commensurate response in terms of politics and policy.