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Professor Cary Cooper
Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Lancaster University
Professor Cary Cooper

Gross National Wellbeing is as important as GDP growth

Authors: Professor Cary Cooper

29 November 2012

The Office of National Statistics launched the second set of national wellbeing data on the 20th November. This is comprised of four standard questions on life satisfaction, how worthwhile are the things that they do, how happy and how anxious they are.  This is supplemented by a range of existing material collected by the ONS and other government surveys, to develop a national picture of wellbeing in cities, communities, the workplace, among the elderly, crime, jobs, unemployment, how people use their leisure time and so on.  The ultimate purpose of this is to identify aspects of national life that could be improved through policy initiatives and/or targeted wellbeing interventions.

Much of the happiness/wellbeing agenda is driven by economists, who over the years have found that GDP is not a good indicator of a person’s happiness or overall wellbeing. This was highlighted in the 70s by the Easterlin paradox (named after a leading economist of the time), which found that even if a person’s income rises beyond a certain level  their happiness does not.  The same thing applies to GDP figures over time, that is, a country with high or growing GDP is not necessarily more happy or content than ones with lower levels. Indeed  in this current survey, and other research carried out by academics in the field, probably the most significant factor in people’s wellbeing and contentment is in their ‘relationships’, with family, friends, relatives and neighbours.  Even during the ‘good times’ over the two decades prior to the crash in 2008, it wasn’t the disposable income that was the driver to people’s happiness (once they had a minimum level and were employed), it was their sense of belonging, community and close familial and personal relationships (Cooper, et al, 2008).

It is an irony in these very difficult economic times that so much attention is being devoted to exploring the issue of happiness and wellbeing, whether it is the UN Bhutan declaration signed in April, 2012 by 79 countries on the importance of gross national wellbeing, or the OECD’s encouragement for countries to enhance their societal wellbeing as a strategic objective, or the various governments’ (eg UK, France,etc) attempt to measure it.  If we have learned nothing else during these last couple of decades, it is that our national wellbeing is as important as our striving for GDP growth.  Ideally, we would hope that both can grow together, and we can get better balance in our personal and national lives. As the old Japanese proverb says “vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare”.  We need action for growth but sustainable human growth as well.

Cary L. Cooper, CBE, is distinguished  professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, and co author of Wellbeing: Productivity and Happiness at Work (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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