Many will be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Others like Manfred Max-Neef have updated Maslow’s approach and there is now a rich understanding in Theories of Human Needs around what it means to flourish and what brings wellbeing to individuals, communities and societies.
For a long time there have been counter-intuitive signs questioning our current economic model and leading Nobel prize winners like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stigliz and Dan Kahneman, to question the meaning of prosperity. But little of this thinking managed to find its way into the Rio+20 debates.
In 1968 Since Robert Kennedy questioned GNP as a measure, saying, “it does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Now evidence such as the Nef Happy Planet Index and Genuine Progress Indicator have been helping challenge assumptions about the link between wealth, growth and wellbeing or prosperity.
These indicators show for instance, that despite continuing exponential economic growth since the 1970s, in the rich world, life-satisfaction has flat-lined. Indeed in the rich world, the opposite of wellbeing – ill-being – is growing, with levels of depression, isolation, mistrust and substance abuse soaring. Work by academics and think tanks shows that, above a level of income most in the rich world long since achieved, only 7% of our wellbeing comes from income.
The key things which increase wellbeing, once basic material needs for things like food, security and shelter are met, have been defined as ‘feeling good and functioning well’, are connection to friends, family and community; giving back and volunteering; being physically active; having life goals and continuing to learn; and taking notice and being engaged. These are what we at Nef call the ‘five ways to wellbeing’.
 The New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org), of which Jules Peck is a Trustee, are the world’s leading think-tank on heterodox economics. See their http://www.happyplanetindex.org/