State of wellbeing

Forget the Festival State can South Australia become the Wellbeing State?

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its happiness levels. Since 1971, the country has rejected gross domestic product as the only way to measure progress, and championed the measuring of prosperity through formal principles of ‘gross national happiness’ that reflect the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of the country and its citizens. Gross national happiness (GNH) serves as a unifying vision for Bhutan’s five-year planning process and associated planning documents, and policies must pass a review based on a GNH impact statement that is similar in nature to the environmental impact statement process in place in other parts of the world. This belief that wellbeing should take precedence over material growth has remained a global aberration over the past few decades, however in a world beset by flailing financial systems, increasing social inequity and ongoing environmental destruction, it seems the tiny Buddhist state’s approach is suddenly gaining momentum. David Cameron floated similar concepts ahead of the 2007 global economic crash when he told the 2006 Zeitgeist Europe conference that, “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.” Cameron asserted that improving society’s sense of wellbeing is the central political challenge of our times. “Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.” The Cameron government’s program to measure national wellbeing has since undertaken a widespread collection of subjective wellbeing data, with the aim of giving them a central place in the choice and evaluation of public policies. South Australia’s strategic plan has placed the objective of wellbeing at its core since its inception, leading to the highly popular Martin Seligman Adelaide Thinkers’ residency. Founder of the positive psychology movement, and proponent of a new ‘science of prospection’, Dr Seligman recently proposed that Adelaide become the world capital of wellbeing. “It has the edge to be the world capital. It can create a wellbeing institute whose job is to envision and execute the Australian agenda for wellbeing,” he told a gathering of 1800 people who attended his final public lecture at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre last month. Chair of the Economic Development Board, and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, Raymond Spencer has welcomed the idea of making South Australia a global hub for the teaching and learning of positive psychology. “The science of wellbeing has much to teach us about how we can make more productive, innovative and creative organisations by focusing on the people,” he suggested. “Increasingly we recognise that economic development is built on and indeed serves as its ultimate objective the wellbeing and happiness of the community.” According to Premier Weatherill, “This residency really could be a watershed in the way in which we think about not only ourselves as individuals but also ourselves as a community and perhaps even as a state.” Positive psychology should not be confused with positive thinking, and the associated mantras that led to the late 20th century’s obsession with material success, self-promotion and the self-appointed self-help guru industry. A bit like preventative medicine, which aims to build the health and fitness of a population rather than simply treat disease, it aims to complement the traditional discipline by focusing on the promotion of mental health rather than the treatment of mental disorders. According to its proponents, the field seeks to “make normal lives more fulfilling”, to “find and nurture genius and talent”, and to create the conditions for a community or organisation to flourish. Pleasure, engagement, relationships, meaning, purpose, and accomplishment all play a role, and Seligman promotes a scientific approach to the measuring and building of these attributes within an institution, such as a school or corporation, or within an entire population. At the heart of the movement is the notion of encouraging innovation and creativity, and this is where the theory of prospection comes in. In addition to analysing people’s focus in life by positive or negative valence, prospection introduces a time perspective (past, present, or future orientation) to the study of human motivation and happiness. The approach then moves beyond the traditional psychological framework of viewing human behaviour as being driven by the past, to one in which navigation into the future is seen as a core organising principle of behaviour. If Seligman has his way, brain scientists, philosophers, psychologists and policy-makers will collaborate to turn Adelaide into a laboratory that will help us to understand how the brain simulates future scenarios, how it uses those simulations to predict the consequences of action, and how individual and collective decisions can then be made in the name of true progress.

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