By Ed Thistlethwayte

Keir Starmer’s Party Conference speech in September set out his plans for leadership, and naturally many caught the headlines. But there was one pledge that seemed to slip under the radar of all mainstream reporting. It was Starmer’s promise to “set a national goal for wellbeing to make health as important as GDP.” While it went largely unnoticed, it does represent a significant divergence from the belief that social progress is best achieved and measured through economic means.

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Thomas Jefferson said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” But in today’s society we tend to measure social progress through the narrow lens of economics. While economic resources do enable us to afford the necessities in life like food and shelter, money cannot buy everything that we need in a happy life. Many wellbeing indicators cannot be measured in economic data.

For example, health and life expectancy are not accounted for in the most common tool for comparing development levels, GDP per capita. Yet it seems ludicrous to describe a rich society, with an unhealthy population and short lives as prosperous. 

This difference between economic prosperity and true wellbeing becomes more evident when comparing increases in GDP per capita with wellbeing indexes such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). GPI was designed to measure actual societal progress, not just economic progress.

The findings, based on US data, show that social progress and economic progress grew in tandem up until the 1970s, at which point they diverged. While GDP per capita has increased up to now, GPI has actually decreased over the same period. Clearly, if we are making more money, but going backwards in wellbeing, something is going wrong.

This type of thinking may not be useful in societies where the basic needs are not met, but in a  rich country like the UK it is essential. If the government is meant to make our lives better, but only measures this in relation to money and wealth, so much of what is important to us is either forgotten or marginalised.

So why are we not talking about a crisis in happiness? 

Our political system has merged the ideas of economic growth and social progress. As far as most economists and politicians are concerned they are the same thing. As Bill Clinton’s chief campaign strategist James Carville said, “Its the economy stupid!” What he meant by this slogan was that what mattered most to voters was the economy doing well, because if the economy is healthy, people’s lives get better. 

This is a fundamental flaw in the system, meaning that promises of the wonders of economic growth convinced people to believe their lives will get better if the economy grows. But as wellbeing data now suggests progress may even be moving backwards, is it any surprise that faith in politicians is at an all time low? As politicians pat themselves on the backs for producing sustained growth, the average person is left moving backwards, and despairing at the difference between the political narrative and the lived experience.

Significant action is required to change how the government, media and public prioritise and understand successful policy. A shift away from economic indicators is unlikely to be universally popular, especially across the political establishment and private business, where a neoliberal framework of ‘growth equals prosperity’ is deeply ingrained. But in Starmer’s speech it seems as if there is a glimmer of hope. Even though very little has been written about it, the fact that he deemed it important enough to include in his speech bodes well.

Sunset above the Central Valley of San Jose in Costa Rica. San Jose is the capital and largest city of Costa Rica. Source: iStock

A method to follow?

A new approach that includes a greater focus on wellbeing is not unprecedented, and examples from across the world include broader aims than those mentioned in Starmer’s speech. Costa Rica, a mid-income country, tops the World Happiness Index created by the New Economics Foundation. They found that this was a result of their access to “education, healthcare and nutrition services”, as well as “sufficient spare time and abundant interpersonal relations.”

The question remains ‘how does a poorer country manage to provide a happier existence than richer countries?’ Firstly, Costa Rica put a strong focus on building lasting peace and creating peaceful resolutions to conflict, on the large and small scale, creating a lasting peaceful environment for its citizens. This has led to low violent crime rates and lays the foundations for a prosperous society. 

Secondly, a focus on affordable, accessible and preventative healthcare for everyone has resulted in a very healthy population. Healthcare begins before birth, with government run prenatal classes accessible to all. Life expectancy, too, is among the highest in the world, and remarkably, there is no difference in life expectancy across social groups. 

Finally, ecological sustainability is at the heart of the political agenda. A restoration of rainforest, and a mix of taxing companies importers of fossil fuels and carbon-offsetting has meant Costa Rica is close to becoming the first carbon neutral country. Essential to a happy life is the knowledge that it can say that way for life, and it’s clear that Costa Rica’s government takes this seriously.

Can we make Britain happier?

Above anything else, we need to find a way to bring wellbeing to the forefront of the minds of both politicians, and the media. Nothing can be done without opening a discussion. This is beginning to happen, but one mention in a party conference speech is not enough to spark a national debate, especially without significant media coverage. 

The first priority should be to highlight the differences between true prosperity and the prosperity produced with economic growth as the driving force. Once it is understood that the grip economic growth holds over policy formation is ineffective at producing better wellbeing, we can begin to redirect policy towards new and more useful goals. 

If this is achieved, the real task begins: to increase the happiness and long term wellbeing of the British people. There is a lot we can learn from other countries’ attempts to better wellbeing such as Costa Rica, and there is no doubt that a focus on preventative healthcare, reduced violence and environmental sustainability would have long term benefits on the wellbeing of the UK. But this kind of seismic change would offer a huge opportunity to build the kind of society we want, with our own priorities put first.

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Last Update: January 26, 2022