What were you doing when you realised that the quality of your wellbeing—your physical, mental, emotional and social state of being—is, and will always be, your most valuable possession? The Covid-19 crisis has drastically changed how we live and value our lives, as well as the ways in which we interact and engage with one another. It has made us understand that we cannot take anything or anyone for granted, especially our wellbeing.
Over the past decade there has been a growing hunger for wellbeing, with rising interest in lifestyles that actively promote it: such as Japan’s “J-Wellness” to forest bathing to the Scandinavian “Hygge.” Covid-19 has accelerated the shift towards a society-wide focus on wellbeing, with government agencies, such as Public Health England, providing specific guidance on the mental health. One proposal seriously being considered is the implementation of a four-day work week, which is currently being analysed by the Spanish government to boost employment and enhance worker wellbeing. In the corporate sphere, companies like Unilever have already taken a leap forward by starting a four-day week experiment with their employees in New Zealand.
In the UK, the Carnegie Trust’s new Gross Domestic Wellbeing report supports the growing international interest in placing national wellbeing at the centre of post-pandemic recovery plans. The report highlights how the narrow parameters of GDP do not, and cannot, provide an accurate story of whether life is improving. Instead, a Gross Domestic Wellbeing (GDW) measure is proposed, which calculates a score based on ten areas of life ranging from our relationships, to what we do and where we live. This holistic approach undoubtedly provides a clearer picture of who is, and who is not, living a high-quality and fulfilling life. While the measure seems radical, it is one well worth considering when looking at countries such as Bhutan, which has developed its own Gross National Happiness metric. Bhutan has now doubled its life expectancy within the space of sixty years and is the only carbon-negative country in the world; impressive achievements that countries across the world should learn from.
Covid-19, as well as mounting concerns about climate change, has confirmed that economic growth alone is not enough to sustain economies and societies in the 21st century and beyond. Despite the economic challenges ahead, there are positive signs that people’s aspirations for a different way of life are being taken seriously.
As highlighted by Gus O’Donnell, governments across the world are realising that prioritising wellbeing helps them to deliver what people really want. Research has shown that incumbent governments remain in office when overall wellbeing has remained steady or has even improved. The recently re-elected New Zealand Labour Party has proposed a wellbeing budget, which provides almost $5.6 billion for the health sector as well as an investment of $1.6 billion in both government and non-government social services.
The UK urgently requires an entirely new wellbeing-led approach if it is to offer the prosperity and growth promised by Boris Johnson. There are hopeful signs that a shift is slowly happening. The Treasury’s new Green Book provides a more refined analysis that measures costs and benefits in terms of their environmental, cultural, health, social care, justice and security impact on social wellbeing. Such an approach is welcome and desperately needed as the Brexit transition period comes to an uncertain end. A comprehensive programme of joint levelling-up and wellbeing-focused policies in the UK would complement the government’s new environment-focused Ten Point Plan, but instead of emphasising that “economic success and environmental responsibility go hand in hand,” it would do well to elaborate on the wellbeing benefits of purpose-orientated green jobs to society.
While the 2008 financial crisis delivered similar lessons on the importance of wellbeing, life quickly returned to normal in the aftermath. Today, there are positive and active signs that we are reaching a new normal. But governments across the world are also confronting a quadruple whammy of health crisis, economic crisis, climate crisis and a crisis of institutional legitimacy—challenges that make the 2008 financial crisis seem less arduous in comparison. As individuals, we no longer take our wellbeing for granted and treasure it dearly. But the question remains whether governments will demonstrate that they believe in wellbeing’s intrinsic value to humanity in the long-term as much as we do.