Chasing the rainbow
David Cameron is currently proposing a UK-wide survey on well-being. It's been a hobby horse of his for at least four years, in which time he's been calling for a reduced focus on GDP, saying: “There's more to life than money.” But is a survey the right place to start and what might it achieve?
There are two camps in this debate; the first prioritises what constitutes well-being, and how it should be measured. Millions have already been spent on this endeavour, with some success, but much disagreement. The second argues that intangibles like love and happiness cannot be measured without rendering them meaningless. In other words, it's better to trade precision for a richer understanding of the subject. It is the familiar quant-qual debate.
Of course, it is not "either-or", but in these times of austerity, we must make choices. The approach we take depends on what we are trying to achieve. If we are seeking to promote greater well-being in the UK, then it might be more cost effective to put our current — very considerable — knowledge on this topic into practice and not worry overmuch about precision. In my view, too much energy has already been expended on measurement and too little on using what we already know — with all its incompleteness and ambiguity — about increasing human happiness.
Psychologists, among others, have been studying this area for at least 80 years. We know what makes people happy — we are awash with research — most of it confirming what common sense tells us. In the middle of the last century, psychologists such as Harlow, Bowlby and Piaget highlighted the importance of early parental nurturing for well-being in later life and Maslow stressed self-actualisation in adulthood as a route to happiness.
Equally, we know from a plethora of research that work which feels meaningful, a sense of community, strong family bonds and focusing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals, all build a sense of happiness. More recent studies have shown that wealth, beyond a fairly basic level, does not increase it and countries where there are extremes between the rich and poor, such as the US, tend to have lower levels of well-being.
Bhutan, a remote Himalayan kingdom has adopted Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the standard by which it assesses national and individual "success" and it has become a Mecca for the unhappy West. It aims for a balance between economic growth, ecological balance, cultural stability and humane governance which enables well-being — and it seems to be doing pretty well. There is a saying there: You can gauge happiness in a smile.
In the UK, GDP defines our national worth. As individuals, "wealth has become the measure of the man" and too often materialism defines "success". If we want change, we need more than a survey. We need to re-define our cultural norms and genuinely prioritise well-being. Are we ready for this?
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, February 2011
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011