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Presidential Blog

Doing the right thing, doing the wise thing

15 February 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

Despite, or perhaps even because of, a sharp turn to the right in international politics, there is growing worldwide interest in the science and application of wellbeing.

The decisions that we make, as individuals as well as in politics, matter. And there’s increasing interest in ensuring that we make wise decisions – decisions that improve the wellbeing and life satisfaction of communities and individuals, and, crucially, that will protect the future wellbeing of our grandchildren.

Although natural and economic resources are, of course, important, there is widespread recognition that we need to do better than to measure the success of nations and economies merely by adding up its gross domestic product.

We should applaud the fact that a positive legacy of previous governments in the UK has been the establishment of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing; developed in cooperation with the Economic and Social Research Council and Public Health England, and supported by the former Cabinet Secretary and cross-bench peer Lord Gus O’Donnell.

The Centre’s work builds on the rich and growing data produced by the Office of National Statistics and is dedicated to understanding what national and local governments, along with voluntary and business partners, can do to increase wellbeing.

This is because some of the factors that determine our quality of life cannot be measured only in terms of monetary value. For instance, our health, our family and relationships, the quality and nature of our work, the environment and education are all important contributors to our sense of satisfaction with our lives.

If we are to measure what really matters to people, then we need to measure these factors, too.

Our aim – I am, with colleagues, a beneficiary of the grant-funding scheme of the Centre – is to build a future where the wellbeing of people and communities improves year on year and wellbeing inequalities are reduced.

We believe that improving wellbeing should be the ultimate objective of policy and community action, and our purpose is therefore to develop and share robust, accessible and useful evidence that governments, businesses, communities and people can use to improve wellbeing across the UK.

So, what would it look like if we were – as policy-makers or as individuals – to place wellbeing at the centre of decision-making?

One of our partners, the psychologist David Halpern uses the term ‘de-shrouding’ (a term he comments that his colleagues dislike) to refer to the benefits of removing layers of misinformation or assumption, and making the evidence of the consequences of decisions on our wellbeing more transparent.

That is, we could – David recommends – do more to help people appreciate the benefits of exercise, of spending time with those we love, of green spaces and of culture and heritage, relative to the (rather inadequate) benefits of longer working hours or better-paid (but less rewarding) jobs.

Colleagues from the New Economics Foundation and Public Health England stress how adopting recommendations from their ‘five ways to wellbeing’ could help.

Another colleague (again a psychologist), Kevin Daniels comments that adopting a wellbeing stance in the business world would find that people in decent jobs are less likely to go off on long sickness absence and end up receiving disability benefits; a ‘win’ for the employee, the employer and the tax payer.

Those making decisions in businesses should be reminded that workers with better wellbeing tend to perform better (on average), and in a competitive labour market, being a good, responsible employer is part of the ‘employee value proposition’ and encourages the ethical investor.

Quality work, Kevin argues, is skilled, productive, meaningful, work that provides benefits for the employee and for society.

In this view, a society based more on a principle of wellbeing (rather than sybaritic obsession with stuff, product and money) would see us take decisions that place much greater priority on our physical and mental health, and our relationships (both intimate and wider).

We’d live closer to our jobs, we’d work shorter hours (hopefully, in my opinion, supported by universal basic income) and happily balance the inevitable benefits against our income.

We’d exercise more, and choose our food with greater care. We’d participate more in local activity, and give more to charity. We’d spend more time learning, and less time commuting.

Crucially, we’d choose – as employees, employers or voters – to reduce the unhealthy inequity between rich and poor [http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/projects/fair-society-healthy-liv..., because we’d all benefit. Yes, it looks a lot like a Nordic model... but there are very good reasons for that.

But this rosy view needs to be tempered with other forms of psychological science. Unfortunately, we often fail to take the wise decisions (to eat better, to exercise more, for instance), even if we are well aware of what we should do. We know, at least at one level, what the right thing to do is… and then we do something else.

Human psychology is full of illogicality, so this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. We haven’t fully learned yet the knack of persuading ourselves not to do stupid things. But perhaps we’re inching that way.

We can identify – and therefore perhaps avoid – the inappropriate or out-of-context use of heuristics. We can (at least try) to orientate people towards thinking of the longer-term future. It strikes me that when I act this way it is generally because I believe I have a stake in my own, my children’s and my (now) grandchildren’s future.

We can also use influence with policy-makers to ‘nudge’ us towards the kinds of decisions that the What Works for Wellbeing Centre envisages; ensuring that evidence is at the heart of political decision-making (something not always seen), ensuring that we focus on the word ‘good’ when making investment or planning decisions.

What would ‘good’ economic growth look like? What is ‘good’ urban development (rather than any kind of development)? What would ‘good’ employment look like?

We should argue for ring-fenced or hypothecated funds for primary prevention or to support specific policies designed to improve community wellbeing (such as protecting green spaces, preserving heritage and facilitating local community engagement).

We could also choose policies that make it easier for people to make the right decision.

We can look at pricing and taxation policies to make it more attractive to choose the healthy, rather than the unhealthy, product; we could legislate to provide cues for positive decision-making at the point of action (for example, putting nutritional information on restaurant menus, or appropriate messages about exercise next to elevator call-buttons).

And we could, as I’ve argued before use political incentives, such as differential rates of corporation tax, so as to make it advantageous for colleagues in business to make the choices supported by robust evidence of the impact on our wellbeing (and that of our grandchildren).

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has much more information and links about this work, which I am proud to be part of.

More research will be published soon; on inequity and inequalities and their impact on wellbeing, on work and wellbeing; on learning and its relationship with wellbeing; on sport, leisure, green spaces and heritage; on trust and community engagement, on travel; and on what we know so far on the impact of policies designed with wellbeing in mind.

It is, perhaps, a long-term project, but it’s exactly what we need to be doing.

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