"Wellbeing is a 'way in' for people who know something isn't right, but who aren't political". More from StirToAction's Festival

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One of the most provoking presentations we heard at Stir To Action’s Playground For the New Economy festival this week was from NEF’s Annie Quick. Annie wanted us to question whether the last 20 years of talk about “wellbeing” - as an alternative way to measure of success and flourishing than just income or GDP - has become outmoded in our post-Crash, austerity-gripped, post-IPCC society at present.

We weren’t taking notes, but we have discovered this March article on NEF which effectively captures Annie’s points. We’re always interested in alternative indicators for value in society on this blog, but we take on Annie’s critique - which, as she made clear on the day, comes from her convictions as a “socialist”. We won’t tie ourselves to any -ism - but it’s interesting to consider her case.

The first thing Annie does is to place the rise of the wellbeing discussion within its history - as a response to an age which seemed implacably materialistic and neoliberal (basically, the early 90s to the late 2000s).

The grip of neoliberal economic orthodoxy was tight, and projects such as the National Accounts and Happy Planet Index were seized upon by many thirsty for dramatically new economic vision.

In this context, the findings from wellbeing research that social relationships are more of a predictor of wellbeing than income made sense. It explained why a period of modest income growth but high inequality and apparent individualism just didn’t feel like progress. 

The climate crisis was a central motivation for NEF’s wellbeing work. A primary challenge was how to transition towards lower consumption. It was hoped that evidence of the centrality of non-material things (such as NEF’s Five Ways) to wellbeing would help cushion the blow.

Because the people who needed to consume less were the middle and upper classes, these were often the key audience for this work. However, this was always combined with economic justice.

If wellbeing were adopted as a primary indicator then the economic implications were radical: evidence of diminishing returns to income, and the importance of security of work and housing, all pointed away from neoliberal orthodoxy and towards a transformative, redistributive economic agenda.

In this way, wellbeing presented more than individual policy prescriptions – it presented a new direction, away from the burgeoning materialism of the 1990s and towards a wellbeing economy that worked for people and planet.

What stopped this perspective advancing? The 2007 Crash; the resulting austerity with its consequences for debt, pay, housing and health; the Brexit vote as a complex response to all that; with the burning Grenfell tower as its symbol. Wellbeing took a downward step as a more traditional left politics stood up to authoritarianism and poverty regimes (Annie explicitly at the event described herself as a “socialist”).

Annie also notes that the PR around wellbeing research has not helped it shrug off a “fluffy” image - where lollipops and birdsong improve your mood, or estate agents recommend locations to buy into, in order to improve your happiness (somewhat inappropriate in the middle of a housing crisis).

Another example would be research led by LSE economist Richard Layard in 2016, claiming that mental illness, rather than poverty or inequality, is responsible for low wellbeing. “These generated headlines that money doesn’t matter, and that some cognitive behavioural therapy should sort us out”, notes Annie, “headlines that are, in the context of rising homelessness and poverty, deeply damaging”.

Yet what’s interesting about Annie’s take is that she’s in process about the impact of wellbeing talk - and that seems to be because she’s seen it working with real communities. For example:

Take the success of NEF’s own Five Ways to Wellbeing. Our brief was to design a wellbeing equivalent to the five-a-day fruit and vegetable campaign.

Because of their flexibility and focus on the individual, they flourished. School teachers, volunteering schemes and local councils had a hunch that working more holistically was the right thing to do and the Five Ways helped them articulate and build on this approach.

They were only ever intended as a limited communications tool, but their popularity far outstripped our more systemic work on wellbeing for policy making because they were things that could be done without major structural change.

You can see from this 2015 video (above) from Rochdale Council how fluent civil society and local government has become in the “five ways”. Annie goes on, in her recommendations at the end of the piece, to reveal what role the wellbeing focus can play in engagement with citizens:

The idea of wellbeing connects to people in a way that other aspects of new economics (collective ownership, better regulation) often don’t. 

That’s why the Five Ways flew so far. Whenever we do workshops with local groups, I’m struck by how revolutionary people find it. “Yes,” they say, “that’s it. It’s about wellbeing, that’s exactly right.”

For them, the science of wellbeing provides a legitimation of a gut feeling. As I wrote in 2017, many of the people that we spoke to in deprived communities described their votes to leave the EU in just these terms.

More than once I heard people explain that they wanted to leave even if it meant a fall in their incomes. They were voting for something which went beyond their economic concerns, and instead for a sense of meaning.

As Naomi Klein argues in No is Not Enough, and as our Framing the Economy project found, we need to articulate where we’re going as well as what we want to leave behind. 

Wellbeing can provide a ‘way in’ for people who know that something isn’t right, but who don’t see themselves as political, and who are left cold by arguments about the one percent.

We pricked up our ears at these points! We’d agreed that when you pay attention to people with meaningful questions, they start to feel deeply recognised in a new way. Looks like a discussion about wellbeing might well one of the techniques we could try in our collaboratories, alongside arts, facilitation and futures.

Annie’s points about the need to talk about power, where the vested interests are in any situation, are well-made. But we also agree with her that a power analysis can be combined with the kind of appreciation of the value of relationships and emotional life that the wellbeing viewpoint brings:

One of the valuable insights from wellbeing research is how it reveals the crucial importance of the social side of life: of social relationships, of having a sense of meaning and purpose, of community and the strange power of singing together.

These findings are important – they challenge the narrow, homo economicus model of human nature and should also help us to navigate towards a low-carbon economy where we can’t rely on more stuff to make us happy.

What needs to stop is the endless, unhelpful pitting of the two against each other – as though it is either friends or a stable income that will make us happy. Clearly the social and economic are connected and we need a better way of talking about the two.

….When people come together to try to improve their wellbeing, this provides an important opportunity to help build the social connections and collective control that’s needed to create systemic change from the bottom up.

However, this opportunity won’t necessarily be realised. It’s perfectly possible for community groups to continue social action projects that can improve life on the margins without tackling the underlying causes of poor wellbeing.

Learning from the progressive traditions of community organising and community development, we need a better understanding of what turns, for example, a local play scheme into a force against local cuts in children’s services.

However, is that the only “turn” which is possible from an emotionally, quality-of-life driven initiative? Can there also be a way to turn that “making” power - we are concretely creating something, to help our children - into a desire for even more power, a bigger and better structure growing out of this new confidence?

This is what we’re imagining our citizens action networks can celebrate and amplify - maybe in circumstances where the relevant council is paralysed not just by cuts, but also by political sclerosis and gridlock. What process can join up new dots, identify new resources, loosen up old habits and traumas? Maybe using a combination of wellbeing and future envisioning?

As if to anticipate our aspirations, Annie concludes with some salty realism:

It’s tempting to hope that by focusing on something as self-evidently benign as wellbeing, we can build alliances across political traditions and slip progressive economics in through the backdoor.

While alliance building is all for the good, we should be careful about de-politicising wellbeing. Most economic transitions have losers as well as winners and pretending this isn’t the case won’t serve us in the long-term. If politics is the practice of power then wellbeing needs more of it, not less.

To conclude, we would somewhat resist this point. It could well be that one of the few places where political alliances are possible across existing class divides is at the local level (it’s certainly extremely difficult to do at the party-political level, at whatever strata of representative government).

We also wonder whether the existential challenge of “climate disruption”, and the need for us all to address a generally post-consumerist lifestyle as a result, is a new common platform that could support a variety of contributions - “all hands on deck”.

But we thank Annie both for her presentation at StirToAction’s festival, and this blog post - properly clarifying for our own work, and a necessary debate.

More from Annie here.