Aristotle Got It Right; Well-Being, Not Just Wealth, Should Mark the Progress of Our Societies

Article excerpt

Byline: David Cameron (Cameron is the leader of Britain's Conservative Party.)

It is hard to escape the fact that in developed societies, despite progress, innovation and prosperity, there is something not quite right. In some cases, it is hard for people to put a finger on it: a feeling of emptiness and not belonging, a lack of defined relationships and solid social structures. In other respects, it is readily quantifiable: rates of drug abuse, violent crime and depression and suicide are rocketing. Why are we so unhappy? It seems that the Enlightenment brought forth unparalleled liberty in economic, social and political life, but we are now undergoing a midlife crisis.

The politics of happiness is nothing new. In his "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle said that eudaimonia , or happiness, is the goal of life. But for me, the person who brings the great conundrum of personal happiness alive is Robert Kennedy. In a beautifully crafted speech, he said what "makes life worthwhile" is "the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play," "the strength of our marriages ... our devotion to our country" and our "wit ... wisdom and courage." And he pointed out that none of these could be measured by gross national product.

Nor should we be surprised by the politics of happiness. Ask people how they are, and they will answer in terms of their family life, community life and work life, rather than just what they are paid.

Despite this, it is a notoriously difficult subject for politicians to grasp. One reason is that happiness and well-being are generally not well served by statistical analysis. Politicians, obsessed with inputs and outputs, targets and controls, are flummoxed by immeasurable concepts such as the value people place on spending time with their families. Another reason, which is related, is that electoral cycles lend themselves to a culture of short-termism, with a need for immediate, quantifiable measurements and results.

One such measurement is GDP. In many ways, increasing this has been the raison d'etre for many center-right political parties since the 1980s. Back then, many developed economies were in a state of economic malaise, with persistently high inflation and unemployment. We needed something to reverse this stagnation and put us back onto the path of prosperity. Thankfully, we got that.

Today we need to be just as revolutionary to put us back on track to social prosperity: to respond to that yearning for happiness. That is why I have been arguing in Britain that we need to refocus our energies on GWB--general well-being. It means recognizing the social, cultural and moral factors that give true meaning to our lives. In particular, it means focusing on a sustainable environment and building stronger societies. …