Breaking down the barriers to flourishing wellbeing

Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 00:00

While GDP can measure economic output, how can a measurement be put on education or health?

There is increasing international interest in and analysis of human wellbeing and the economic, social, environmental and psychological factors that contribute to it. Current thinking suggests that to measure social progress and national wellbeing, we need something more than gross domestic product.

Dr Michael Hogan from the school of psychology at NUI Galway explains: “Facilitating the transfer and exchange of knowledge to bring about more wellbeing for everyone is a major goal of science. However, the relationship between science and public policy is complex and there is a need to create new spaces where dialogue is fostered and where knowledge is translated into action.”

He welcomes the news that the Central Statistics Office is piloting a wellbeing module for inclusion in their Quarterly National Household Survey in 2013, similar to countries such as the UK, France and Canada.

Helen Johnston, author of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) report Why Wellbeing Matters: A Social Report for Ireland, points out that GDP can measure economic output, but does not take adequate account of the value of education, health or the natural environment.

Tracking trends

The 2009 NESC report, which is one of the first attempts to chart wellbeing in Ireland, tracks trends across six aspects of people’s lives: their economic resources, their work and participation; their relationships and care; their community and environment; their health and societal values.

“Growing international evidence suggests that all these aspects of a person’s life are important for their wellbeing and that they are interconnected. The emphasis given to each depends on an individual’s particular circumstances, how they compare themselves to others, and by the values set in wider society,” Johnston comments.

Johnston was one of the keynote speakers at the Overcoming Barriers to wellbeing in Ireland conference hosted by the health and wellbeing priority research theme at the Institute for Business, Social Sciences and Public Policy, NUI Galway.

Dr Hogan and his colleague, Dr Ann-Marie Groarke, are co-leaders of a research cluster within this theme which brings together experienced academics from a wide range of disciplines – from medicine and social science to business and law – currently engaged in health and lifespan research.

The wellbeing conference brought together scientists, community organisations and policymakers to discuss the latest advances in wellbeing research and policy.

The event featured an interactive management system design workshop – a collaborative process that allows a group of individuals with a vested interest in solving a problem to work together.

Overcoming barriers

The result of this workshop is a comprehensive list of barriers to wellbeing in Ireland and options for overcoming these barriers. The barriers cover the key areas of policy, psychological/behavioural issues, media, economic, social and cultural issues, leadership, structural issues, understanding /basic research and national climate.

Some of the main barriers to wellbeing identified in Ireland include:

* No national measurement of wellbeing

* Lack of emphasis on wellbeing across government policy

* No charismatic champion or leader to advance the wellbeing of the nation

* Narrow or confused definition of wellbeing as being synonymous with health or happiness or quality of life

* Lack of understanding of mental health as wellbeing and not simply the absence of mental illness

* Feelings of helplessness in the face of current global economic/environmental conditions

* Lack of purpose in life and being caught in utilitarian striving

* Focus on materialism in the media

* Lack of funding for community wellbeing initiatives

* Cutbacks which have resulted in shortages of staff and other resources in the healthcare service in Ireland

* Unemployment, which is related to lower wellbeing

* Financial worry and stress that prevents flourishing of wellbeing

* Insufficient funding for mental health services

* Stigma associated with mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety and stress

* Tendency of people not to seek help for mental health problems, particularly males and younger people

* Corrosion of work-life balance, with people working longer/harder and taking the stresses of work home with them

* Limited number of well-designed interventions to promote wellbeing

* Lack of wellbeing “training” in schools (eg, mindfulness classes, emotional coping classes)

* Lack of well-funded mental health services

* Lack of trust/dissatisfaction with the system, government and decision-makers in general.

The wide range of suggested options for overcoming these barriers to wellbeing which came out of the workshop include conducting research to establish the factors that individuals and communities consider important for wellbeing; organising a national day of wellbeing to raise awareness and setting up a wellbeing think tank similar to the New Economics Forum in Ireland.

Charismatic leader

Other suggestions include defining what wellbeing is from a national perspective; implementing a wellbeing module across the education system from primary to third level; encouraging mental health promotion initiatives in schools and workplaces; the promotion of greater flexibility in workplaces with a focus on productivity rather than hours clocked and ensuring that all GPs undertake mental health and wellness training.

Dr Hogan suggests that President Michael D Higgins might be a good candidate for the charismatic leader who could advance the wellbeing of the nation. He welcomes the new wellbeing curriculum being incorporated into primary schools and says that this needs to be continued into second- and third-level education.

“There is huge potential for collective action where a community comes up with an idea and takes on the responsibility to do the actions needed to bring it to fruition. Each of these small contributions feeds into a bigger system and can have a powerful effect.

“There is already a lot of work going on in this area, but we need to rethink how to spend the available funds on wellbeing projects.”

* An expert seminar on wellbeing will take place in Croke Park, Dublin this Thursday to present the latest research on developing and using wellbeing measures in policy-making in different countries. The seminar is being organised by independent think tank TASC in conjunction with the CarnegieUK Trust.

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