Tomorrow will see the release of the UK’s latest GDP figures. No doubt the election will only increase the fanfare and column inches attached to this magical number and its corresponding ‘conclusions’. Have we, as an economy, grown? Are we, as a nation, succeeding? Are we, as consumers, confident? But what, in this definition, does growth, success or confidence really mean?
GDP has been our primary measure of progress for over 70 years. It measures, in short, what we have bought and sold. Its growth, therefore, tells us if we have consumed more this year than last. Our ambitions for future growth asks of us that we do all we can to consume more next year than this – for the sake of our nation, our future, our ‘prosperity’.
Is this truly what it means to prosper? Ask any parent what they want for their children and the answer, in some shape or form, will be happiness. Ask what brings lasting happiness and people from Birmingham to Brisbane, Eastbourne to Ethiopia will talk about relationships, belonging, a sense of purpose or value, community, security, health and opportunity. More ‘stuff’ will sometimes be mentioned, but only if it brings something more meaningful and lasting to their lives.
Globally, two cities are leading the call for better measures of city prosperity than GDP growth. Bristol in the UK, the home of Happy City, are looking to embed wellbeing, in its deepest sense, at the heart of how City governance works. This means judging our public services, our businesses and our community investments, not by a simplistic and narrow financial bottom line, but by how they contribute to better lives for current and future generations.
The Happy City Index encourages every citizen and every leader to look again at what it means to create the conditions for people to thrive. Factors like social support, freedom to make decisions, generosity, trust, quality of life and strength of communities have for too long been ignored in our reckoning when it comes to ‘growth’. Where economic growth supports this, it is, of course an important element – but economic growth must be judged on its ability to deliver meaningful ‘prosperity’ not as an end in itself. In some places and some contexts economic growth will be a vital part of the mix, but by being the goal, rather than one of many means, it skews our decisions, driving social and environmental crisis.
This month I was invited to New York to share in the success of another pioneering city in the field, Santa Monica in California. They were sharing with other US cities the extraordinary impact that has resulted from embedding their own wellbeing framework into the heart of city systems. All public services, their programmes and their budgets, have been reassessed and aligned with their impact on; sustainability, good housing, life long learning, health, economic justice, community participation and personal wellbeing and resilience.
As a member of the Santa Monica project’s global expert advisory panel I have followed their work closely. This event showed clearly that the entire Californian delegation recognised the huge influence embedding wellbeing has had on their work. As we remembered recently, Robert Kennedy famously implored the world nearly 50 years’ ago to not just look at GDP but to measure what truly makes life worthwhile. It seems the world is finally catching up!
So, as we all digest tomorrow’s headlines and the electoral spinning of words like; growth, progress and security, let’s decide for ourselves what is most important in life. AT Happy City we believe it is time to put the cart back behind the horse. We can be far more ‘confident’ about our ‘prosperity’ in the future if we think about it as citizens, parents, friends and neighbours. We are far more than consumers.
Liz Zeidler – Chief Executive, Happy City