Opinion

Wellbeing is not a luxury. It's a basic human right which the next government must protect

Sarah Cunningham, managing director of the World Wellbeing Movement, writes about why the next government must prioritise wellbeing after the general electiom

person with head in hands

One in eight people are now living below the 'happiness poverty line' – and that should worry all of us. Image: Unsplash

With the general election just a few days away and the past few couple of weeks’ news being dominated by the launch of the party manifestos, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on the content of the manifestos but I’ve been disappointed. There has been a notable absence in the priorities of those vying for Number 10: wellbeing.

Wellbeing is a bit of a misunderstood term, often overlooked in discussions about what truly matters to people’s everyday lives.  But let’s get one thing straight: wellbeing is not a luxury. It’s a basic human right that permeates every single issue at this general election and our politicians must sit up and take notice.

The science of wellbeing, increasingly studied the world over, focuses on the quality of life of people as they experience it. By asking people how satisfied they are with their lives, we can measure wellbeing and study the factors which improve (or reduce) it. And we need to improve it.

In the World Wellbeing Movement’s inaugural UK Wellbeing Report, published earlier this year, we highlighted the alarming proportion of people in the UK living with very low levels of wellbeing.  The headline stat – that one in eight of us are now living below what we term the ‘happiness poverty line’ – should worry us all.

Even more troubling are the steep wellbeing inequalities across the UK, with as many as 25% of people – an astonishing one in four – living below the happiness poverty line in some areas. It shouldn’t be a luxury to feel good about our lives.

Put it this way: why does the health service matter? Well, you feel terrible if you’re sick. Why is the cost of living crisis such a priority for us all? Because the stress and worry of not knowing how to pay the month’s bills can soon put us in a dark place. Why is good education so important? Because without it, our young people won’t have the tools they need to live healthy, positive lives.

Let’s delve deeper: Why is better housing so crucial? Because living in poor-quality or unaffordable housing, or not being able to access housing at all, can lead to constant stress and instability. Why is accessible public transport essential? Because without it, people can feel isolated, struggle to get to work or school, and find it hard to access essential services.

Why is enhancing mental health services so key? Because without access to the right support early on, our loved ones could face more serious physical and mental health problems down the line. Surely all of us can agree that these examples are essential to a thriving society. So why the focus on GDP and growth for the sake of growth?

I’ve been perusing the manifestos over the past couple of weeks and there are piecemeal elements of wellbeing policy scattered throughout. I’m encouraged to see the comprehensive and preventative approach and investment in mental health services that Labour have pledged, as well as the promise by the Liberal Democrats to expand social prescribing and refresh the national strategy for loneliness.

Perhaps the most far-reaching promise was in the Green Party manifesto that mentioned ‘changing the way success is measured in our economy, with new indicators that take account of the wellbeing of people and the planet’. Although, disappointingly, this was buried on page 15 of their document. Surely measures of wellbeing should be put first?

If the low levels of wellbeing across the UK are not enough for Westminster to pay attention, perhaps this will be – research shows that the wellbeing of citizens is a significant factor influencing whether an incumbent government gets re-elected.

Studies indicate that voters tend to favour the current officeholders when they experience higher life satisfaction and happiness. I’ll leave it up to you to ponder what that could mean when people vote in a few days’ time.  

Whoever ends up with the keys to Number 10, it’s vital their administration considers every single policy decision through a wellbeing lens to ensure a healthier, happier and fairer society.

This goes far beyond essential healthcare investments to also encompass preventative services: from encouraging grass-roots sports, to designing housing and transport systems that facilitate social connection, creating affordable housing close to green spaces (known to be good for our mental health), to enhancing mental health services, supporting social prescribing, ensuring healthy workplaces, and so much more.

Every area of policy has implications for our wellbeing. Wellbeing is not a luxury – it’s a basic human right, and it’s time for politicians to start putting wellbeing first.

Sarah Cunningham is managing director of the World Wellbeing Movement.

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