While the rest of the country is occupied with her successor, Theresa May has been trying to push through some concrete policy in her final month as Prime Minister, including a new mental health plan and promises to tackle poor-quality housing. The UK has a national well-being dashboard yet we continue to prioritise endless economic growth, often at the cost of our personal and environmental health. This begs the question, what does growth mean to the UK? Is it time for a more civilised kind of growth? New Research Intern Sophie Brownlee investigates. 

A Wellbeing Budget 

In May, New Zealand became the first country committed to introducing a wellbeing budget. They’re not the first, however, to look at alternative methods of measuring growth. Surprisingly perhaps, the Kingdom of Bhutan was the first, coining the phrase ‘gross national happiness’ in 1972. Yet Bhutan remains apparently unhappy, ranking 96 places below the world’s happiest country, Finland. Happiness is highly subjective, though. What matters is where our focus lies. Measuring GDP is not the problem, it’s the end goals it causes us to focus on.  

Whilst GDP is viewed as the gold standard in measuring economic growth it is increasingly viewed as not fit for the 21st century. It doesn’t consider environmental degradation or sustainability and tends to measure success on monetary terms alone. A country is surely so much more than its economy. We don’t judge a child’s growth on their savings account or income but on their educational achievements, the development of their interpersonal skills, and their physical growth. Can reorienting government policy to meet measurable wellbeing targets satisfy GDP diehards as well as communicating to citizens the values that a particular nation believes in? 

The Policy Conundrum 

By placing wellbeing measures at the heart of policy government could change the way it communicates with its citizens. On the other hand, with Bhutan languishing in the happiness polls, we cannot ignore the contribution economic growth makes to wellbeing. 

The problem is that social indicators can easily be branded as woolly. Bhutan’s GNH Index includes domains such as ‘community vitality’ and ‘cultural diversity and resilience’, which are arguably difficult to measure. Equally, New Zealand’s plan includes ‘non-traditional’ indicators such as perceived environmental quality and sense of belonging. One might wonder whether it’s better to improve the actual quality of your environment; it doesn’t do much for our health if pollution levels are just perceived to be getting better. 

The way around these criticisms is identifying what constitutes holistic growth, and what can be measured. GDP has its uses, but it should not set the political direction for a world grappling with issues like climate change or whether the jobs we’re creating are sustainable. The Guardian’s Upside feature rosily suggested, albeit rather tongue-in-cheek, about measuring the number of trees planted; difficult, perhaps, but building a policy panel that incorporates such measures need not be impossible and may in fact be necessary.  

Practical Politics 

The term ‘wellbeing agenda’ is more frequently being thrown around in both the professional and public policy space, highlighting the rising tide of people who want to see a more well-rounded definition of ‘growth’. New Zealand’s budget includes half a billion for the ‘missing middle’ – those with mild to moderate anxiety and depressive disorders – as well as a record investment in preventing family and sexual violence. These are issues that affect not only peoples’ lives and health but their productivity. Focusing growth on a human level should only benefit economic growth in the long term.

According to the UK’s wellbeing dashboard our mental health, levels of loneliness, satisfaction with accommodation, and feelings of depression/anxiety are all stagnating. To quote the F-1 driver Alex Dias Riberio, ‘unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy’. 

Britain does indeed appear unhappy. Divided on Brexit, distracted by leadership contests, and grappling with our place in the world, a ‘wellbeing budget’ might seem the last of our worries but it could be the perfect answer to social reconciliation. It offers us the opportunity to ask, what would we change? What do we value? And what do we want to communicate to others that we define as ‘growth’ and ‘success’? Nobody said changing an entrenched system would be easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.