Drafted by Prof. Lord Richard Layard and Launched at WOHASU 2023
It is time to reappraise the goal for our society. We believe the goal should be people’s wellbeing – their enjoyment of life, their sense of satisfaction and of fulfillment. Income alone is not enough – we need to aim at the noble Enlightenment ideal of wellbeing. Let’s put wellbeing first.
More and more people agree with this approach. But policy-makers have been slow to respond – both in government, in business, and in education. Instead we have a world where measured stress has been steadily rising in every continent. This makes no sense. We have the evidence on how to build a happier world. Let’s use it to increase overall wellbeing – and especially to reduce misery.
Measurement. All governments, employers, and schools should be measuring the wellbeing of those they affect, at least once a year.
Government. The goal of governments should be to sustainably improve the wellbeing of the citizens, choosing those policies which are most cost-effective in terms of wellbeing.
Business. The purpose of business should be to sustainably improve the wellbeing of their employees, customers and suppliers as well as their shareholders.
Schools. The main aim of educators should be to enhance the present and future wellbeing of their pupils, using evidence to achieve this.
Individuals. We should all of us be trying to create the most wellbeing in the world and the least misery.
If you treasure it, measure it
If we measure only GDP, or profits, or school grades, it’s quite natural that they become all-important. So we must measure wellbeing – in the population, the workforce, and the school.
Wellbeing is not fuzzy. It is well-measured by asking questions like “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 meaning “Not at all satisfied” and 10 meaning “Completely”). Answers to such questions clearly convey significant information. For example they are good predictors of how long you will live, how productive you are at work, and whether you will quit your job or your partner. They also predict whether you will vote to re-elect the government. So (if for no other reason) governments should want to maximise wellbeing.
For measurement to be useful, the same measures should be used as widely as possible – to permit benchmarking. Across countries, the OECD has promoted a common standard. Across business, there is an obvious role for ESG rating agencies. And, across schools, governments like the Netherlands and South Australia have taken the lead.
Wellbeing as the goal of government
Thomas Jefferson once said, “The care of human life & happiness… is the first & only legitimate object of good government”. We agree – provided the happiness is fairly distributed.
Fortunately more and more governments are moving in this direction. The most prominent are the five members of the Wellbeing Economy Governments alliance, but both the EU and the OECD have requested that their members to “put people and their wellbeing at the centre of policy design”.
This approach is simply an extension of what already happens with health policy in many countries. Health spending affects a person’s quality of life and it can also affect how long that person lives. The overall outcome is thus the increase in the patient’s Wellbeing Years (or WELLBYs). This is the measure of benefit that should be used for all forms of public expenditure. Establishing basic human rights is essential.
But in the search for new policies, governments should give especial weight to improving the wellbeing of those who are least happy. For the inequality of wellbeing is the most fundamental inequality and a major objective of policy should be to level-up those whose wellbeing is lowest.
So the test of every policy proposal should be its impact on wellbeing relative to its cost. (And where the best evidence is in the terms of willingness-to-pay, this should be converted into equivalent units of wellbeing).
Such an approach would lead to very different priorities – with more emphasis on public services and less on public investment in physical capital. Mental health would emerge as a priority area for extra spending – with increased spending relative to physical health. For adults, modern evidence-based psychological therapies save more money than they cost, because they help so many people back to work. But it is even more important to treat mental health problems when most of them begin, which is in childhood and adolescence. Going further it would be better to stop the problems in the first place – through better care in schools. Another obvious issue requiring much more priority is the fight against climate change – to protect the wellbeing of future generations.
Wellbeing as the purpose of business
It is not difficult to see why we need a new approach to wellbeing at work. For example, in hour-by-hour surveys of happiness, work emerges as one of the worst experiences people have – worse for example than housework. And the worst time of all is when you are with your boss. The person who should be inspiring you and appreciating you is putting you down. This is not good, even for shareholders – money invested in the 100 Best Places to Work in the US in 1984 was worth 50% more in 2007 than money invested elsewhere.
But employee wellbeing also matters for itself. Employers can affect it hugely, both by how they organise work and in how they handle mental health problems in the workforce. Thus employee wellbeing should be the central focus for the S in assessing the ESG (environment, social and governance) performance of a company.
However, the social responsibility of companies goes beyond shareholders and employees. Business has responsibilities to its customers, suppliers and local communities. It is hugely encouraging that in 2019, the US Business Roundtable committed its members to this wide view of the purposes of business. Profits are essential for a business to thrive and grow, but its existence is justified by its contribution to human wellbeing.
Wellbeing as the goal of education
The wellbeing of children is hugely affected by their schools and their teachers, and this in turn affects their future wellbeing as adults. In fact your wellbeing as a child has more effect than your academic qualifications upon your subsequent enjoyment of life. But fortunately educators do not have to choose between children’s wellbeing and their academic performance, because the evidence is clear: happy children learn better.
Schools need a wellbeing policy accepted by all staff, parents and pupils. This policy should influence the whole ethos of the school. And there should also be at least one weekly lesson dedicated to life-skills, taught by properly trained teachers using evidence-based materials. Many schools do this, but all should.
Wellbeing and the role of individuals
In the end all action depends on the values and actions of individual people. The best outcomes can only be achieved if everybody’s aim is to be a creator of happiness – to contribute as best they can to the sum of wellbeing in the world. This idea is implicit in most of the world’s great religions and explicit in many secular organisations (including WOHASU, Action for Happiness and the World Wellbeing Movement).
We can build a happier world – with sustainable wellbeing and much less misery. But we will only do it if that is really our objective. So let’s measure wellbeing. And let’s make it the objective of every organisation and every individual. There could be no more inspiring purpose for our lives.
Drafted by Prof Lord Richard Layard
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