The financial crisis has led many people to reflect on their quality of life, and the evidence shows there is no link between wealth and happiness – time to end our obsession with gross domestic product, writes academic
One of the interesting consequences of the credit crunch, the recession, the period of slow growth and uncertainty in the global markets is that the issue of well-being and happiness in society has taken centre stage. British prime minister David Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, among many others, have spoken about the importance of societal well-being. Moreover, in the United Kingdom there is an all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing, the World Economic Forum has its global agenda council on health and well-being and the UK's Office of National Statistics has been tasked to measure well-being in its quarterly surveys.
As times get tough, it appears that people begin to reflect on their quality of life, as global evidence shows there is no link between wealth and happiness. For the two decades prior to the credit crunch, the developed and emerging worlds were becoming richer, but their citizens were perceiving quality of life as becoming more frenetic and stressful and less happy. Focusing on material goods and being increasingly workaholic and materialistic has meant that people have had less time to invest in their families, relationships and communities.
In the UK and other developed and emerging countries, an increase in workplace stress has become evident, alongside its negative consequences in stress related sickness absence, presenteeism – people turning up to work even when ill because of fear of job loss – damaged relationships at work and in the home, and decreasing productivity. Moreover, we know the reasons behind this as the research evidence is overwhelming. Working consistently long hours, being managed badly, feeling little control over your job, having little work-life balance, lacking a sense of job security, and coping consistently with poorly managed and unremitting change is damaging people's health and wellbeing. This then spills over into private lives and communities.
Obviously, people need to work and the country needs to grow economically, but this must be done in a balanced and humane way. This ongoing downturn is now giving us time to reflect more deeply about our way of life, to see how we can move from an obsession with gross domestic product, to a more balanced agenda where gross national wellbeing has a role as well. It is interesting to note the speech given by Bobby Kennedy, when he was on the campaign trail for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1968, a time of real turmoil over both Vietnam and economic growth:
"Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, now, is over $800bn a year, but that GNP – if we judge the United States by that – that GNP counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.
"Yet the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."Cary Cooper is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: European Union