Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Henry J. Lewis | Which is better, wealth or well-being?

Published:Sunday | August 27, 2017 | 12:00 AMHenry J. Lewis

Why do successive governments miss the mark when it comes to connecting with the day-to-day levity of ordinary Jamaicans? Is it a case of neglect, or downright ignorance of the plight of the ordinary man in the street, including the poor and the working poor? I would want to suggest that it is neither of the above.

I believe that most governments want the best for all their people, even though the reality does not always bear out this fact. I am suggesting that both major political parties have been out of touch because they have missed a very important indicator of growth - the well-being of its people. Measuring well-being is an area of growth that goes beyond the traditional indicator of gross domestic product.

Few countries actually have a National Policy of Well-Being. How was the PNP able to measure the Progressive Agenda? And what is the Andrew Holness-led JLP Government using to measure prosperity? Is it through the usual economic indicators that tell us how much the economy has grown? Is it how many cell phones one person owns, as suggested by one politician who is now deceased?

I want to suggest to present and future governments another measurement that is critical to the growth of a nation - a national well-being measure. Consider this for a moment: What would politics look like if promoting the well-being of all Jamaicans was one of the Government's main priorities?

In the past, some pundits have suggested in the press that it is happiness that we need to pursue in Jamaica as a national goal. I have no issue with this. However, well-being supersedes happiness.

Happiness often refers to how people are feeling moment to moment and does not always tell us about how they evaluate their lives as a whole, or about how they function in the world. Well-being is a much broader concept than moment-to-moment happiness. It includes happiness, as well as other indices, such as how satisfied people are with their lives as a whole, autonomy (having a sense of control over your life), and purpose (having a sense of purpose in life).

Well-being comprises objective descriptors and subjective evaluations of physical, material, social and emotional well-being, together with the extent of personal development and purposeful activity, all weighted by a set of values. Well-being is a global assessment of a person's quality of life; it is developing as a person; being fulfilled and making a contribution to the community.

The World Health Organization defined quality of life as an individual's perception of his or her position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which he or she lives and in relation to his or her goals, expectations, standards and concerns. It is a broad-ranging concept affected in a complex way by the person's physical health, psychological state, personal beliefs, social relationships and his or her relationship to salient features of his or her environment.

Jamaica urgently needs a National Well-Being Policy and an accompanying measurement. The Ministry of Health should lead this cause by first rebranding itself as the Ministry of National Well-Being (MNaWB), since the aim of a democratic government is to promote the good life: a flourishing society where citizens are happy, healthy, capable and engaged.

Well-being promotes a better society and contributes to other important ends. Research has shown that a happy, satisfied and engaged people are more sociable, active, altruistic, generous, tolerant, economically productive, creative, healthy (physically) and live longer.

 

GDP AS GROWTH INDEX

 

Measures such as GDP are headline economic indicators that focus on one aspect of life. There are those who believe that standard measures of economic performance and progress are not really suited for policy decisions that they are being used to inform

An example of the disconnect between economic indicators such as GDP and more general measures of well-being is given in the United Kingdom during an intensive debate about whether a third runway should be built at Heathrow. From a narrow economic perspective, the answer was clearly yes.

The United Kingdom is suffering, relative to other European countries, from its limited capacity for long-haul flights to other parts of the world, especially the Far East. But from the perspective of the well-being of people in West London and surrounding villages living under the flight paths of 1,300 wide-bodied jets taking off and landing every day, economic measures only scrape the surface of what is meant by well-being.

Likewise, they fail to tap into the environmental impacts (sounds like the Goat Islands and other developmental projects) of increased air travel. So GDP misses central aspects of what people regard as important. GDP was not designed to be an overall measure of well-being, so it is not surprising that it is now judged inadequate in that respect.

More generally, as we shall see, perhaps economic measures themselves are inadequate or insufficient. After all, contentment, happiness, quality of life, etc., are influenced by more than mere financial wealth or income. The richest person, suffering constant pain from an incurable disease, may well not rate his or her well-being as very high. Likewise, exhaustion of natural resources may lead to short-term benefit, but it will mean the consequent enhanced quality of life will not be sustainable.

There is evidence to suggest that both human and social capital are associated with a wide range of non-economic benefits, including improvements in health and a greater sense of well-being. If this is so, it is time for the Government to start the dialogue on a national well-being policy. This might be the only hope to save the poor in this country. Let's talk!

- Henry J. Lewis is a psychology lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UTech, Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.