Wellbeing is about more than wealth

I’ve just spent two hours at Biobank, a UK wide health data project, patiently answering lots of very personal questions about the state of my health. Half of them were about my well being, my state of mind, and what I think are the reasons for it. All done anonymously of course but hopefully to bear fruit one day in new social policies. Happiness as a social goal is at least as old as Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher of “the great happiness for the greatest number” which spurred the great surge of the Victorian age of improvement. By Bentham’s standards, we’re not doing so well these days.

A more individualistic society is also one with much more loneliness. Half a million pensioners spend Christmas Day alone. Our research shows that a million people have literally no one to turn to and no one who appreciates them. Many older people in cities like London are afraid to go out, and feel acutely isolated

Too much attention paid to wealth creation, to little to general wellbeing. It’s not a new thought but it needs new action. Britain may not be the Conservatives’ Broken Society but it is a Brittle Society, according to a vivid report Sinking & Swimming Understanding Britain’s Unmet Needs from the Young Foundation. introduced here by its director and former senior Blair aide Geoff Mulgan. £9,000 debt for the average household exc mortgages, difficult transitions for the young, the lonely old.. all evidence of unmet needs. A bigger and bigger load is placed on charities, while the resource gap widens.

The UK economy is around £1300bn in total. Government spending is around £620bn – an unusually
high proportion of GDP, partly thanks to the recession. There are roughly as
many hours of unpaid work as paid work each year in the UK, mainly within the
family. By comparison total charity income is around £34bn and total foundation
spending around £3.5-4bn.

The UK’s leading guru on wellbeing is social scientist Lord Richard Layard, who in this Prospect article describes his approach, eg:

The main argument for redistribution has always been that an extra pound gives less extra happiness to a rich person than a poor person. Until recently this was pure speculation; survey evidence now confirms its truth.

Stealthy redistribution was supposed to be the keystone of Gordon Brown’s philosophy before he fell victim to the lure of unexamined growth. His tragedy, and ours. David Cameron’s putting the blame on big government while using government to create more individual “empowerment” seems little more than political chaff to accompany a vision of tax cuts one day, oh Lord, one day. Sadly as so often, Northern Ireland is left out of the Young Foundation project but some research has been done – but pre-recession and so now of date. I notice that “wellbeing” was written into the duties of the new councils under the RPA. Is anyone aware of anything more substantial?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London