The language of Wellbeing: Bhutan and the beautician

Publication Date: 

Friday, 9 January 2015 - 6:27pm


Katherine Trebeck

Language matters. Misleading or easily misunderstood terminology risks distorting an issue, creating unnecessary confusion. It risks imparting the wrong impression and potentially inculcating or spurring inappropriate actions.

These risks are especially acute when an issue rapidly gains policy makers’ attention and becomes a ‘fashionable’ topic.

And I fear we’re seeing this with the term ‘wellbeing’. Wellbeing has a complex set of meanings and interpretations – which have potentially very different and perhaps even contradictory implications in terms of policy responses.

Yet the term wellbeing is bandied about everywhere. It seems to be becoming ubiquitous in policy agendas, academic proposals, and many civil society programmes. Some are calling for wellbeing to be the ultimate goal of government, while the number of books written about wellbeing and how to obtain it proliferates. Alarmingly, the term seems increasingly to feature in marketing materials of beauticians who – as seen in this ad for a beautician in Glasgow – seem to claim that all it takes to achieve wellbeing is to have a spray tan and give your toes a pedicure.

Such usage is perhaps the most common understanding amongst those outside the policy or academic community.

Which is why I find the increased use of the term wellbeing – let alone “happiness” – potentially (well, ok, frequently!) problematic.

The beautician’s understanding of wellbeing and happiness suggests happiness can be reduced to superficial and isolated moments of pleasure (this is the hedonic understanding). As Robert Skidelsky explains ‘happiness in the standard modern sense of a pleasant state of mind is not necessarily a good at all. It depends on what one is happy about’. Although the same point is perhaps more poetically phrased by Oscar Wilde: ‘To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind it blowing is a disgusting occupation…To sweep it with joy would be appalling’.

But there are multiple types of wellbeing: pleasure (hedonic wellbeing); satisfaction with one’s life (evaluative wellbeing); and human flourishing (eudemonic wellbeing).  It is possible to argue that hedonism and eudaimonism are at opposite ends of the scale: the former can derive from instant gratification and spawn rampant individualism; while the latter is about accomplishment, engagement, meaning and purpose.

Others, including Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and capabilities scholar Martha Nussbaum, have warned that the existence of adaptive preferences might mean that some whose expectations and hopes have been quashed by experience of barriers and discrimination, report levels of satisfaction which seem counter to their objective circumstances. This is a contentious suggestion, but what cannot be denied is that some of the most oppressed people, living difficult lives, seem to carry on by making the best of a bad situation. While others, who seem to have ‘everything’ in a material sense at least, seem to want more – the infamous hedonic treadmill. For example, people adapt to higher incomes by raising expectations: Schor warns that between 35% and 60% of incremental income gains might fall victim to the adaptation effect.

So we need a richer, more collective notion of progress that is not muddied by multiple, contradictory meanings and not distorted by marketing.

Sen talks of the ‘habitat of happiness’ which seems to be a sound place to locate our efforts – seeking to change the context in which people live, work, and play so that they have more opportunities to build lives over which they have control. This is what Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness project, with its 9 domains, goes some way to encompassing.

A few hundred years before Sen or HRH King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan declared GNH to be more important than GDP, Jean Charles De Sismondi described the proper role of government (emphasis added):

‘When, on the other hand, the legislator…succeeds in organising a society in which individuals can achieve the highest perfection of spirit and soul…but in which at the same time all members are assured to find protection, education, moral development, and physical comforts, then he has fulfilled his tasks’.

More recently, for the Humankind Index, Oxfam Scotland asked people across the country what they needed to live well in their communities. Folk identified a range of factors, from health to good homes; from meaningful work to local amenities. Positive feelings were there, but down the bottom of a list of 18 – and as one of many inputs to living well. In fact, it is often argued that good lives involve a measure of hardship, struggle, loss, and failure.

All this is to say the field of wellbeing is complex and contested, and so we must proceed with caution and pay attention to the multiple meanings of the words people use.
What is hard to contest is the advice of 8th century Buddhist monk, Shantideva, who suggested that:

‘All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanted pleasure for oneself’

Katherine Trebeck is a Global Research Policy Adviser with Oxfam UK, an Honorary Professor at the University of the West of Scotland, and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde.

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