The debate on wellbeing often veers towards the happiness of the individual. Based on her pioneering work in Scotland, Oxfam’s Dr Katherine Trebeck (right) argues instead that we must see (and define and measure) well-being as an essentially collective aspect of life.
In 1972, in a famous speech likened at the time to the Gettysburg Address, union leader Jimmy Reid spoke to students of the University of Glasgow, and explained how people who feel they have no real say in their future or their own destinies become alienated; they feel anger and angst at being victims of ‘blind economic forces beyond their control’.
People clearly want and need a say in processes that impact their lives. They want something different to the consumption-orientated and distribution-blind measure we currently use to assess our national prosperity, Gross Domestic Product. The apparent widening of the gap between what people want and what political leaders deliver risks perpetuating the disenchantment and alienation that Reid warns is so harmful to individuals and communities.
So in a small, but hopefully embryonic initiative, Oxfam is putting people at the apex of policy making. In the Oxfam Humankind Index for Scotland, rather than simply adopting the views of think tanks, academics or other ‘experts’, and rather than using arbitrary weightings for respective components, the composition of the Humankind Index is a direct reflection of the views and priorities of the people of Scotland. Oxfam asked almost 3,000 of them (see pic) what they needed to live well in their communities (focusing on collective assets), making a particular effort to reach out to seldom-heard communities and creating time and space for deliberation, discussion and debate.
This generated a set of priorities that were weighted to reflect the relative importance of each factor of prosperity relative to the others. The resulting Humankind Index is an example of modern democracy; giving people a say in the direction of society and the nature of the economy. Only by distilling the demands and ideas of local people will policy makers be able to adhere to the views and priorities of their constituents.
But this was not an exercise in asking people to list their every whim, shopping list or personal angst and then demand that policy makers respond. The emphasis was on asking what people need to live well in their communities in a deliberative and participatory manner that moves beyond individual wants to what their communities require.
A selection of quotes from participants reveal that people we spoke to readily recognised the needs of those around:
Without good health you cannot work and [you cannot] help your family and community.
A secure place that people can call their own, control access to and build a life from.
A stable network of supportive, caring, loving relationships to encourage, console, enthuse and otherwise support people through to having life and living it to the full.
Enough greenspace to allow them and theirs to have fresh air. Play areas for children and pets.
The key issues for people in [our community] is in provision of secure, worthwhile employment opportunities.
[We need] an economy that supports everyone.
Some stuff to do – activity clubs instead of using drugs and alcohol; community centre (archery, football, pool, dancing, squash)…Having somewhere local to socialise, cafe, Pub, restaurant, etc.
Access to education for all ages. Literacy and the ability to engage in social dialogue are critical.
Ability to know neighbours and be able to help and be helped
Clearly, this was not about individual happiness per se or life satisfaction for individuals – it never sought to create a happiness or wellbeing index that aggregates each individual’s assessment of their own satisfaction. Amartya Sen warned that people can bear adversity cheerfully. But that doesn’t mean there is no adversity, nor that we should ignore the inequalities that shape the circumstances of deprived communities. Creating the Humankind Index is about addressing that adversity, putting prosperity gaps and inequalities at the centre of policy making.
The Oxfam Humankind Index therefore does not demand that policy makers seek to alter people’s inherent pleasure or anxiety or satisfaction with their lives. This is determined by factors such as genetics, can be undermined by life occurrences beyond the control of policy makers (such as losing a child or a spouse) and there is ongoing debate in the literature as to whether individuals have a ‘set point’ that is not particularly amenable to policy intervention anyway.
Instead, in asking people what they need to live well in their communities the Oxfam Humankind Index focuses on real wealth (which, incidentally, once meant ‘the conditions of wellbeing’) and assets at the collective level, rather than each person’s happiness. It offers a more direct road map for policy makers, highlighting areas where policy intervention is required for a more sustainable and just society. It is a tool for making Jimmy Reid’s ‘blind economic forces’ the servant of the people, not the other way around.
And (because it’s worth reposting), here’s that sweet video on wellbeing in the real Scotland – forget Trainspotting……