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Well-being and politics

A sense of subjective well-being appears to be linked to democracy and freedom. In a study of 55 nations, the American psychologist Ed Diener showed that societal equality and human rights had a strong correlation with well-being.

Another study compared levels of life satisfaction between citizens of East and West Germany following their re-unification in 1990. It found that after a brief burst of elation after the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans settled back into lower levels of life satisfaction than their Western counterparts. However, their level of satisfaction began to increase steadily during the period 1990 - 2000, while that of West Germans remained static. Only around 12% of the increase in East German satisfaction was attributable to their rise in living standards. Most of their growing sense of well-being was down to better circumstances in life, such as political freedom and better public services.

Across the world, politicians and policy advisers are beginning to look at well-being as a better measure of the health of societies than the current focus on economic measures, such as Gross domestic Product (GDP).

The National Economics Foundation (nef), a UK-based think tank, has been asking the question 'what would policymaking and the economy look like if their main aim were to promote well-being?'

The Foundation argues that 'well-being is one of our most important ends, as individuals and as societies. But despite unprecedented economic prosperity we do not necessarily feel better individually or as communities. For example data shows that whilst economic output in the UK has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, happiness levels have remained flat'.
Professor Tim Jackson  of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at Surrey University, who is a nef associate, has produced the UK's first Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP) towards sustainable development. The MDP builds on over a decade of work to define such indicators in a number of different countries.
The UK index adjusts personal consumer expenditure to account for a variety of economic, environmental and social factors not included in the GDP.
For example, the MDP adds the benefits of household labour, accounts for income inequality, subtracts social costs (such as crime, congestion, family breakdown) and environmental costs (such as air pollution, resource depletion and the 'hidden' costs of climate change) and makes adjustments for long term investment and economic sustainability.
The Foundation argues that local authorities need to consider how economic, social and environmental well-being links with, and is influenced by, people's personal well-being. 

'We propose that these areas are important precisely because of their effect on people's personal well-being. By placing people's well-being at the core of policy formation, councils can be more innovative and potentially more efficient and effective too,' says nef.

Meanwhile, some politicians have considered legislating on the matter of well-being. In 2001 Marlene Jennings, a Canadian Member of Parliament, proposed The Canada Well-Being Measures Bill. The Bill was not passed, but if it had been it would have required the setting up and publication of a set of indicators to measure the well-being of Canadian people, communities and ecosystems.

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