The ‘politics of well-being’ has a credibility issue with politicians and the general public, partly because of how research is communicated. In brief, there is too much leaping for joy.
National and international well-being reports from the last four years tend to have a homogenous style or visual look, which is also reinforced in the media coverage. The covers of these reports, and accompanying media, have typically shown people leaping into the air in a state of euphoria. Reports also often show a wall of smiling faces, or resort to the by-now-ubiquitous ‘smiley face’ cartoon.
This reporting style risks alienating parts of the population, particularly during a period of austerity and global uncertainty. It presents one particular model of well-being – extrovert, high arousal, individualist – while alienating the roughly 25% of the population who may have a more pessimistic, melancholy or introverted bias, including most journalists and academics.
So here are some examples of the ubiquitous ‘leaping for joy’ image in well-being economics. Here’s two from the new economics foundation, pioneers in the field:
Here’s the Office of National Statistics, who launched well-being measurements in 2012:
And here’s how the media report on their findings:
Here’s the cover of Italian statistics agency ISTAT’s well-being report:
Here’s how university well-being departments communicate their research:
And here’s how the wider ‘well-being movement’ tends to picture itself:
So when the WHO came to decide what to put on the cover of their first well-being reports, there was only ever one way they were going to jump:
This is not well-being – this is euphoria, ecstasy, a quasi-religious state of exaltation. And it’s not a state most of us feel all that much, outside of 80s pop videos and the occasional full moon party. We particularly don’t feel it that often during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. So if the politics of well-being is not going to seem culty, simplistic, or frivolous to skeptics, it needs to find a way to communicate its findings, verbally and visually, in ways that honour the variety of ways people might define and express well-being.