How can policy makers promote well-being in society in a way that goes beyond mere economic growth and stability?
This was the central question of a conference entitled “Well-being of Society: Happiness as a measure of the economy? A cultural perspective,” hosted today in Rome by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the British Embassy to the Holy See, and the Costa Rican Embassy to the Holy See.
The aim of the conference was to examine whether it is possible for policy makers to measure and apply principles of well-being – or “happiness” – in a given society.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, was among the keynote speakers, along with Fernando Felipe Sánchez, Ambassador of Costa Rica to the Holy See, and Nigel Baker, British Ambassador to the Holy See. Other presenters included Dr. Saamah Abdallah, of The New Economics Foundation; Dr. Glenn Everett, director of Well-Being for the Office of National Statistics; and Dr. Roberto Serrentino, Professor Faculty of Science in Finance for E-Campus University, Novredrate (Como), Italy.
Speaking with ZENIT, Ambassador Baker spoke about the objectives of the conference, and on the challenges of implementing principles of “well-being” in society.
ZENIT: What is the aim of this conference?
Baker: There has long been a debate about how to measure the well-being of society, and how to apply policies to make people’s lives better. One of the classic measurements has been GDP – the measure of economic wealth – but policy makers have long recognized that has never been sufficient. There has been, particularly since the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, efforts to try and capture a broader measurement of well-being which includes tangible factors: education, environmental aspects, healthcare, childcare, marriage, etc. Also, what economists call subjective aspects: why is it that somebody who may be wealthier, healthier, is more anxious than somebody else in a poorer country, but has a stronger sense of well-being for themselves or their family.
A couple of the more concrete aspects of this debate we’ve seen in the United Kingdom: New Economics Foundation, an economics think-tank which has created a “Happy Planet Index” (HPI), and the United Kingdom government which has a national program for well-being which is working on trying to capture this sense of well-being for policy makers.
We thought it was right to bring this debate to the Holy See. They have their own contribution to make, because we are talking about factors that impinge on social justice, factors like faith, factors like the broader health of a society that goes beyond pure economic management – they are all areas in which the Holy See is interested. We’ve also have our partners from Costa Rica who traditionally come at the top of this HPI.
ZENIT: Regarding this aim of policy makers to promote this fuller sense of “well-being,” could there possibly be the danger of policy makers and leaders trying to excessively control and define happiness within a society?
Baker: There is a danger, and I think some of the critics of, for example, the National Program of Well-Being in the United Kingdom, the danger is that it will encourage governments to become deeper and deeper involved in people’s lives. They can say “tweak that, tweak this, and we can improve national well-being.”
Like any index, like any way of measurement, you have got to be quite careful with this. It is however undoubted that policy makers have a lot of really rather blunt tools with which, for all of our statistical ingenuity, to measure the success of their policies, or decide which policy rather than another may be better applied to improve the lives of populations. Trying to work out how to improve people’s lives from the point of view of the people themselves is both honorable and justified in policy terms.
ZENIT: How can we apply these principles of “well-being” globally? For instance, concepts of “well-being” in one culture might not coincide with those of another culture. How can these differences be reconciled?
Baker: It’s one of the problems with, for example, the HPI, which is one of the number of indices that look at this. The criteria they apply, why do they finish up pushing a country like Cuba very high, and the United States very low. Quite rightly, the critics in the United States will say, “Are people in the United States less happy than Cubans?” (although let’s be careful about the concept of “happiness”).
Secondly, you’re right. There are different criteria that apply. But this is exactly the same argument that one can use to criticize things like GDP as a tool. Somebody may not be wealthier than another person in another country, but they are maybe less anxious. They may be more content human beings, because they have a certain family set-up, or they have their own home. The wealthier person may worry about the job the next day, whereas the person who is more content may have a different relationship to the job market. These are clearly subjective criteria in many cases. There is clearly a cultural aspect which is why bringing this through the Pontifical Council for Culture is worth doing. Also, it is fair to try and look for points of comparison, and say it is not just about wealth. It is not just about material success in which lives can be measured as being better or worse. There are many other criteria as well, and perhaps we need, as policy makers, to look more deeply, to compare and contrast, and perhaps we can even borrow good ideas and good practices from other countries.