When most people think about the wellbeing of society, they tend to think in financial terms—how is the economy doing? Is it growing? By what percent? Yet there are fundamental problems with the overemphasis on economic growth as THE path to prosperity. Besides the fact that it’s based on Western values of material accumulation and excludes other cultural configurations of wellbeing, it simply doesn’t represent the wellbeing of individuals in a given society.
The reasons become clear when we examine the standard measure for economic growth—the gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP is a flawed indicator of wellbeing since it doesn’t accurately measure economic growth (considering externalities—social and environmental costs), nor does it capture human welfare.
This is partly because the benefits of economic growth don’t “trickle down”—macroeconomic strategies implemented to foster economic growth (e.g., export production and trade liberalization) are not designed with the welfare of ordinary people in mind and frequently have negative effects on the poorest. Just ask anyone who has suffered under IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs.
Moreover, according to development economist Amartya Sen, the GDP does not measure people’s ability to use their income to live well; thus, it cannot be used as an indicator of wellbeing.
Wellbeing, then, has to do with more than economic factors. Sen emphasizes not only economic opportunities, but also “political liberties, social powers, and the enabling conditions of good health, basic education, the encouragement and cultivation of initiatives” and more (Development as Freedom, 1999, p.5).
A holistic model of wellbeing might include six dimensions: an individual’s physical and mental, social, material, and existential (which relates to overall life satisfaction) wellbeing, plus the interrelated realms of community and environmental wellbeing. When all of these dimensions are strong, we can say that we are thriving.
Wellbeing might sound too squishy to some who would argue that since it deals with qualitative conditions of people’s lives, it can’t be measured quantitatively. But it can be and it is, quite effectively in fact, by the United Nations Human Development Index, conceived by Amartya Sen himself.
Another alternative development goal is “happiness.” Many proponents of the happiness model point to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, which King Jigme Singye Wangchuck instituted in 1972 to promote equal distribution of economic prosperity while maintaining cultural traditions, a healthy environment, and a responsive government.
This is an interesting case, to be sure, but it has its critics. Bhutan’s own prime minister, Tshering Tobgay argues that happiness is a distraction from pressing issues such as the ballooning national debt and rising youth unemployment. Shifting from the national to the individual level, the concept of happiness is also questionable. Happiness is commonly associated with a pleasant or elated feeling, and so as a goal it can be too superficial, vague, or misleading.
Thus, as a goal, wellbeing is preferable over economic growth because it is holistic and actually reflects human welfare. It is also favored over happiness as it is more concrete, comprehensive, and countable (that is, many aspects of wellbeing can be measured objectively). Of course, the indicators of wellbeing need to be further specified, but that’s the subject of another post. As a general concept, however, wellbeing holds the most potential for our efforts to create a good life for all.