Monday, 12 November 2012

Can the number of vegetables you eat define your mental well-being and progress?

Flicking through different UK papers and websites, you would be forgiven for not knowing that the 4th OECD World Forum on Measuring Wellbeing for Policy Making and Development had taken place in New Delhi in October.    What’s more, nobody heard a word in the press about David Cameron’s address to the event – albeit by video link.  The mainstream press has had its hands full of other dreadful stories, which you could say show a distinct lack of progress and wellbeing in our society.

Conventional indicators of economic performance* and equalityin Wales point towards increasingly disadvantaged communities in this country. Professor Sir Michael Marmot might say that such inequalities give a good indication as to the lack of fairness in Welsh society*.  Which begs the obvious question, how can we make our communities fairer?  And how do we know when we’ve got there?
This is a point made by Nobel Prize winning economist and conference speaker in New Delhi, Professor Joseph Stiglitz. 

“What we measure effects what we do.  If we measure the wrong thing, we do the wrong thing.  GDP measures the busy-ness of our economy.  But the big question is whether we are busy doing the right things.  Our preoccupation with GDP makes it difficult for politicians to back policies that are good for society and for the environment but which might not result in an increase in GDP.”
So how about a couple of alternatives? The University College of London’s English Longitudinal Study of Ageing has suggested that future disability and poor health could be predicted by the state of a person's mind.  Professor Andrew Steptoe points to the “protective effect of enjoyment,” with nearly three times more people dying in the lower enjoyment group than compared to the greater enjoyment group.  Imagine public services whose performance was measured using indicators of user enjoyment.

Another alternative might come from a Warwick University study that found mental wellbeing appeared to rise with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables consumed.  Seven a day was the magic number. 

What about a national indicator of organic, locally sourced vegetables consumed per person as a key measure of societal progress.  Its not a bad idea.  It implies a local economy, that’s sympathetic with the environment, meets the needs of the community and has the added bonus of being healthy.   It also has a certain wider, public appeal if you have ambitions of wanting to do things differently.  I wonder if it’ll catch on?

* Welsh GDP is just under 80% of the EU average and is lower than any other part of the UK with 9.1% of the population being unemployed (
Public Health Wales Observatory, Measuring inequalities: trends in mortality and life expectancy in Wales, 2011 shows an increase in the inequality gap in life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and quality of life in Wales.

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