Living better

What makes for ‘a good life’?

Beyond material measures of individual wealth, people want to live in a society that invests in its people, one that allows them to prosper. But how can this be achieved in a world of stark inequality facing equally stark economic and resource challenges?

Well-being is a crucial element of prosperity. Since antiquity, philosophers and historians have reflected on what makes for a good life, and in our own time, social scientists have become increasingly influential in getting governments to recognise its importance. In 2008 French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked the Nobel prizewinning economists (and British Academy Fellows) Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to establish an international commission to explore wider ways of capturing prosperity which extended beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or income per head. These would challenge the world to develop a new set of internationally approved measures that could encapsulate all of a nation’s human and physical resources – including leisure time, people’s sense of community, equality of opportunity and the quality of public services.

This ‘Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ (which also included leading British economists Tony Atkinson FBA and Nicholas Stern) reported the following year and its recommendations had considerable influence. It identified eight dimensions that make up overall well-being, many of them missed by conventional measures of prosperity: economic well-being and work; health, education and political voice; personal relationships, environment and security. The Commission examined each of these concepts in detail, and explored some of the relationships between them (‘traffic jams may increase GDP as a result of the increased use of gasoline, but obviously not the quality of life’). Its report pointed to possible ways of measuring them and also highlighted the vital importance of gathering subjective, qualitative evidence, including self-reported data on life satisfaction.

A new Commission to explore the ways in which well-being can drive practical government policies at an individual, community and regional level was established in 2013 by the Legatum Institute, chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell. After the 2010 UK election, Prime Minister David Cameron asked the Office for National Statistics to start rating Britons’ overall sense of their own well-being in an annual ‘life satisfaction’ index; the first findings for 2011/12, published in 2012, showed an average score of 7.41 out of 10. An update for 2012/13 published in July 2013 suggested this had risen slightly to 7.45, although it has been pointed out that major national celebrations such as the Diamond Jubilee and Olympic Games may have complicated straightforward comparisons with the previous year. See here for example the response from the New Economics Foundation

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is similarly placing ever-increasing emphasis on the need for prosperity to be examined and assessed across a much wider range of measures. In its 2013 Development Cooperation report, Ending Poverty, it highlights the importance of the world moving beyond a focus on economic growth alone. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría says in his foreword to the report, ‘The number and diversity of actors in development is increasing, global interdependencies are growing, and inequalities are on the rise despite periods of economic growth. These trends call for broader measures that address poverty and development not only as a question of income, but also of inequality, sustainability, inclusiveness and well-being.’ This growing consensus represents a call not only for scholars and experts in different fields to use their specialist knowledge and research to improve the way these areas of life can be measured, but to encourage them to go further in seeking improvements across these measures, or at least to help ameliorate the threats today’s major challenges pose to them – and advise and challenge policy-makers accordingly.