People’s daily experiences and concerns differ enormously around the world. While a farmer in Angola prays for a good harvest, a manager in Greece worries about losing her job. And while a mother in Egypt comes to terms with life in a conflict zone, a doctor in Denmark struggles with work-related stress.
But there is one thing that unites people’s experiences in every country: they all involve human beings who want their experience of life to be good rather than bad. We share a universal desire for wellbeing. This is more than just a survival instinct; we want to be happy and have the best possible lives for ourselves and those we love.
Whether we’re aiming to alleviate poverty in Africa, end conflict in Syria or reduce stress in US workplaces, the fundamental reason we care about these things is that they are bad for human wellbeing. They cause suffering and pain. Similarly, if we’re aiming to boost economic activity, reform our education system or cut public sector spending, we should only do so if we believe this will ultimately be good for people’s wellbeing. Wellbeing provides a common lens through which we can look at the many challenges and opportunities in our world and decide on our collective priorities.
This is the central idea behind a groundbreaking report published today – the World Happiness Report. Launched in the midst of a major debate about what the world’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be for 2015-2030, the report argues that people’s ‘subjective wellbeing’ – their self-reported sense of happiness with life – should be a central measure of progress for every nation. It is a substantial piece of work edited by, among others, the influential development economist Jeff Sachs.
Recent years have seen a huge growth in wellbeing research and we now have valuable data from all around the world about people’s levels of life satisfaction. Not only can wellbeing be measured in a reliable and meaningful way, the findings have great relevance for public policy and global priorities. What was once seen as a sideshow is now a mainstream movement, with support from influential figures such as UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon and former head of the UK civil service, Lord Gus O’Donnell.
To illustrate how relevant the wellbeing data is for global issues, let’s return to those four examples in my introduction, as they all relate to countries with interesting findings. Firstly, the farmer in Angola. Although Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the lowest wellbeing (it is home to 9 of the bottom 10 countries, the other being Syria), there are a few green shoots. Over the last five years, Angola has actually seen the largest improvement in wellbeing globally, as it continues to regain stability after its terrible 27 year civil war.
However, for the manager in Greece and mother in Egypt, the trends are less encouraging. Unsurprisingly, these are the two countries that have seen the largest falls in wellbeing over the last five years. Of all the countries affected by the Eurozone crisis, Greece has been the hardest hit. Its drop in wellbeing is greater than would be predicted simply from falls in income, reflecting wider problems from loss of trust and social cohesion. And in Egypt, the significantly lower wellbeing surely reflects the Egyptian people’s suffering under the Mubarak regime and the ongoing struggles since the 2011 uprising.
Finally, what about the Danish doctor? Well, she’s at least fortunate to live in Denmark, the country which once again tops the world wellbeing league, closely followed by Norway. With Sweden also in the top 5, we might well ask how these Northern European nations always seem to deliver world-beating levels of wellbeing. Yes they have fairly high GDP per capita, but they’re far from the top of that league. More tellingly, they have some of the highest levels of interpersonal trust and lowest levels of inequality.
The World Happiness Report also provides another extremely compelling reason to prioritise wellbeing, and the research here is really quite startling. It shows that happier people tend to be healthier, recover from illness more quickly and live longer. At work, they perform better, exhibit more creativity, are absent less often and are better at cooperation and collaboration. And in wider society, they have better relationships, exhibit more pro-social behaviour, have greater self-control, engage in less risk-taking behaviour and are more likely to have a positive impact on others. So happier people are not lazy, naïve, inward-looking or selfish, as some sceptics suggest; they are actually more economically productive, healthy, socially-minded and generous.
So what practical changes might we make if we adopted wellbeing as a global priority? Of all the suggestions in the report, the most notable is the call for a fundamental shift in our approach to mental health. Worldwide, depression and anxiety disorders account for up to a fifth of the entire burden of illness. This causes huge misery and involves massive costs due to lost output and worse physical health. Yet even in rich countries, less than a third of people who are mentally ill receive the treatment they need – and in poorer countries the proportion is lower still. This is really shocking, especially considering we now have cost-effective therapies that have been proven to help. Do politicians focus more on physical health, employment or income because they feel uncomfortable talking about mental health? If so, this has to change. Making treatment for mental illness more widely available may well be the single most reliable and cost effective way to improve national wellbeing.
What then should be the world’s development goals for the coming years? Making wellbeing our global priority would surely underpin, rather than undermine, existing sustainable development aims. It would also provide a consistent means to track how successful countries are in delivering improvements in people’s quality of life. The reason that existing goals like universal education, gender equality, maternal health and sustainability matter so much is because they are all fundamental to human wellbeing.
Wellbeing isn’t some luxury for the privileged few, it’s the thing all of us want most for ourselves and the people we care about – whether in a field in Angola or an office in London. It should be at the heart of every discussion of local, national or global priorities.