Through the lens of coronavirus an intriguing new question becomes visible: can a government experience wellbeing?

What’s the difference between happiness and wellbeing?

In this strange time of tight social and physical restrictions and fear of Covid-19 infection, we have perhaps become more conscious of the crucial importance to our sense of wellbeing of social connectedness, creativity, and contact with the natural world than we have ever been.  Even if we ourselves have so far been fortunate enough not to be directly impacted by bereavement, loss of livelihood, stressful frontline work, or some other major harm inflicted by the coronavirus crisis, we may not describe ourselves as happy at the moment; but absence of happiness doesn’t mean that we may not still be experiencing a reasonably high level of wellbeing.

The terms ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ are often used interchangeably. An example is found in the title of the latest book by Richard Layard, economist and one-time government ‘happiness tsar’, Can we be Happier: Evidence and Ethics, which is actually about much bigger questions than personal feelings.One reason for the equivalence of the expressions in everyday parlance is that wellbeing arises largely out of the experience of predominantly positive emotions, for which happiness is a generic term.  Another might be to do with the awkward lack of an adjective to describe the effect of a sense of wellbeing, in the way that happy denotes the experiential state happiness.  But happiness is a feeling that comes and goes, while wellbeing is a more continuous state.  Having a high level of wellbeing does not exclude the experience of unhappiness; rather, it is likely to aid the healthy management of difficult emotions so that they don’t become overwhelming.  Perhaps the current constraints on our lives prise open the distinction between the two notions and help us to appreciate the difference.

Personal wellbeing or thriving is about much more than simply feeling good; crucially, it is also about functioning well.  ‘Functioning’ is both an inward and an outward-facing matter: it encompasses both how we manage our own personal life and inner being, and how we interact with the external world.  The functional aspect is hugely important, yet discourse on wellbeing tends to overlook this in favour of a focus on the feel-good aspect.  In our individualistic culture, out of which wellbeing research and interest developed in the first place, such discourse is inclined to adopt and promote an implicitly self-centred perspective.  

But the significance of personal wellbeing, even in an individualistic society, is much more far-reaching. Why? because, we are all socially connected in the countless ways that constitute society, and ‘happier’ people have been found to exhibit a range of characteristics which are of clear benefit to society as well as to themselves.  That is, people with higher wellbeing have been found to be more realistic; better able to attend to relevant information, including the negative or threatening; to have better self-regulation; and to be more co-operative and ‘other-centred’.  Such individuals also show patterns of thought which are flexible, integrative and open to the bigger picture

In this light, the potential benefit of high levels of wellbeing among the population during the Covid-19 pandemic is clear in terms of its implications for attitudes and behaviours, not only with regard to individuals themselves but also for society as a whole.  It suggests that people with this advantage are more likely to act responsibly and rationally.  It also points clearly to the social gain to be had in the normal course of life by serious political and economic investment in support for the conditions that generate and sustain personal wellbeing, factors I explore in Happier People Healthier Planet.

From the personal to the political

The characterisation of the thinking patterns and outlooks of those with a high level of wellbeing has of course been derived from surveys of individuals. By extension, a whole society would be considered to have a high level of wellbeing, ie, thriving, if its members all felt physically and psychologically secure in every sense; and rates of crime, murder, suicide, domestic violence, child abuse, and other forms of exploitation; and obesity and addiction were low; while levels of trust, respect, employment, and cultural, social and other forms of active engagement, were high. 

Now consider governments. In light of what is known about the impact of wellbeing on thinking, the sluggish, even negligent, early response of the UK government to the coronavirus pandemic raises a serious question as to whether a government, as an entity, can be said to be capable of experiencing – and reflecting – a particular level of wellbeing.   The UK government was patently resistant to taking on board the information coming first from China and then from Italy with regard to the infectiousness of the covid-19 virus, its lethal outcome for significant numbers of those infected, and the measures necessary to halt its spread and protect health workers and other frontline staff who are dealing with it. 

Further emerging information about government preparation for the crisis only reinforces this question.  Its complacency was condemned by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in an article in The Guardian which reported that the government and their scientific and medical advisors ignored for weeks on end the warnings of Chinese scientists who had rapidly and rigorously worked to draw lessons from the Chinese experience. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/18/coronavirus-uk-expert-advice-wrong. Its thinking thus appears demonstrably to have lacked realism, openness or attention to relevant, threatening information.  

Perhaps the tenor of the government’s approach had already been set by the Prime Minister in a speech he delivered on 3rd February, when the virus had begun to spread and there were nearly 20,000 confirmed cases around the world, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51235105. In his speech on ‘Unleashing Britain’s Potential’, Boris Johnson, supposedly humbly, assumed for the UK the role in the world of Superman, saying, “when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.  And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”  https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-in-greenwich-3-february-2020 .  This message manifests the absence of another characteristic of the thinking patterns that come with high wellbeing:  it lacks conceptual flexibility in its refusal to consider the possibility that health measures might need, in the pandemic scenario, to be given precedence over trade, still wedded as it is to the government’s ideological commitment to profit before all else. 

A further influence of wellbeing, that of a willingness to co-operate, was also absent when the government seemingly failed to participate in a collaborative European attempt to secure bulk orders of crucial personal protective kit for NHS staff https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/uk-missed-three-chances-to-join-eu-scheme-to-bulk-buy-ppe .  At the time of writing it is unclear whether this disastrous malfunction was due to a deliberate political decision or administrative incompetence.

It is somehow hard to get hold of the idea that an institution, a body of people which identifies and acts according to a particular purpose or responsibility, could be considered to experience a particular level of wellbeing, a concept which has been almost exclusively applied to the individual.  But the shockingly poor functioning of the British government at such a critical time appears to raise the possibility that this intriguing question has some validity.  If, indeed, it does, this raises further tricky questions about the interaction between collective wellbeing and the personal thriving of the individuals who constitute that institution.  A highly relevant element here would seem to be the values expressed by the group: there is much research evidence to suggest that individuals with materialistic values, ie, who first and foremost value wealth and what it can buy, experience lower subjective wellbeing than those with non-materialistic values, who prioritise instead that which is of intrinsic worth, such as learning, trustworthiness and beauty. 

If the question regarding the capacity of government to experience wellbeing is valid, then how the apparent answer might be addressed, when the level of wellbeing is low, poses a large and complex challenge, and a significant one.  The prospect for societies of rule by governments with the functional attributes of a high level of wellbeing would be something to look forward to indeed.

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