Consumer Capitalism makes money out of the disappointment and depression, the dissatisfaction and rage that are engendered by overheating aspirations and unreal social comparisons.’

Oliver James


Running parallel to a discussion about sustainable development and well-being is a discourse about the relationship between orthodox models of progress, prosperity and wealth and the mental and spiritual health of the population and, in a time of growing resource scarcity, the need for an effective distinction between the wants and aspirations of the people and their needs.

Psychologist Oliver James has conducted some thought provoking work exploring the relationship between materialist and consumerist economic and social models and the underlying mental health of population. The principal focus of his criticism is the value system underpinning ‘Selfish Capital’ which is in turn informed by 19th Century ideologies of ‘Social Darwinism’, advocated by Herbert Spencer. It was Herbert, rather than Charles Darwin, who coined the phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and argued that it would be disastrous for the state to do anything to protect the weakest. Nature should take its course, strengthening society.

Recent developments on 19th Century evolutionary ideologies have been led by prominent geneticist Richard Dawkins‘, whose book The Selfish Gene is an example of how such ideas knitted into neo-liberal economic and social ideologies. The central contention that we exist as machines for reproducing our selfish genes, is seen by Oliver James as a justification for the “greed is good” ethos. Genetic explanations of contemporary social realities as somehow ‘natural’, are seen by James as a rationale for inaction in the face of inequality, social decay, poverty and crime for, citing US sociologist Charles Murray’s belief that “the rich are rich and law-abiding, and the poor are poor and criminal, because of their genes” and “those at the bottom of the gene pool have sunk because of their defective DNA.”

Dawkins, says James, provides the “scientific” underpinning for Selfish Capitalism, supported by his friend, writer-turned-businessman Matt Ridley, said by James to be  “the principal British cheerleader of evolutionary ideology and a loud advocate of cutting back the state, explicitly linking the two.” The inconsistencies of Selfish Capitalism, says James, are revealed by the observation that Ridley was, until recently, also chairman of Northern Rock, which the taxpayer is to bail out “following its disastrously ill-regulated dealings.”

James is able to cite some compelling evidence that the economic and social values of ‘selfish capitalism’ contribute to severe inequalities in the areas of mental health and happiness, between the Anglo-Saxon cultural systems of the UK and the US.

James maintains that citizens of English-speaking nations are twice as likely to suffer mental illness as ones from mainland western Europe. Specifically, his analysis reveals that over a 12-month period nearly one-quarter (23%) of English speakers suffered, compared with 11.5% of mainland western Europeans. The US is by some margin the most mentally ill nation, with 26.4% having suffered in those 12 months. He goes on to identify a form of social disease, which he calls ‘Affluenza’ – a system of values that places a high value on money, possessions, appearances (social and physical) and fame.

English-speaking nations are more infected with the virus than mainland western European ones. Studies in many nations prove that people who strongly subscribe to virus values are at significantly greater risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder.

Add to this the astonishing fact that citizens of English-speaking nations with neo-liberal economic and social value systems are twice as likely to suffer mental illness as those from mainland western Europe, with more social democratic values. An average 23% of Americans, Britons, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians suffered mental illness in the last 12 months, but only 11.5% of Germans, Italians, French, Belgians, Spaniards and Dutch.

Echoing the work of NEF, albeit in more radical tones, James suggests that

What does the damage is the combination of inequality with the widespread relative materialism of Affluenza – placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame when you already have enough income to meet your fundamental psychological needs.

Selfish Capitalism stokes up relative materialism: unrealistic aspirations and the expectation that they can be fulfilled. It does so to stimulate consumerism in order to increase profits and promote short-term economic growth. Indeed, I maintain that high levels of mental illness are essential to Selfish Capitalism, because needy, miserable people make greedy consumers and can be more easily suckered into perfectionist, competitive workaholism.

In the Big Brother/ It Could Be You society, great swaths of the population believe they can become rich and famous, and that it is highly desirable. This is most damaging of all – the ideology that material affluence is the key to fulfilment and open to anyone willing to work hard enough. If you don’t succeed, there is only one person to blame.

Not only would reduced consumerism and greater equality make us more ecologically sustainable,” argues James, in conclusion “it would halve the prevalence of mental illness within a generation. “

The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and … the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl… Yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play… the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Robert Kennedy, 1968

Central to the concept of sustainable development is that of Well-Being, understood by the UK government’s 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy  – ‘Securing the Future’ to be

a positive physical, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society. It is enhanced by conditions that include supportive personal relationships, strong and inclusive communities, good health, financial and personal security, rewarding employment, and a healthy and attractive environment.

The study of broader concepts of well-being is developing parallel with a growing recognition of the limitations of existing frameworks of analysis of human progress and prosperity. The New Economics Foundation, one of the UK’s leading think-tanks developing progressive social policy for the post-credit crunch and peak oil era, has recently published a document – ‘National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet’ – calling for a broader appraisal of our notions of wealth, calling for

a fundamental rethink about our notions of progress and a transformation in the way in which we plan, deliver and evaluate policies which aim to improve people’s lives. We now have compelling evidence to show that our current economic model and economic accounting frameworks are hugely limited, and that a shift to measuring success in terms of well-being is not only desirable, but necessary, if societies are to truly flourish.

The key point, explains the document

is that giving things an economic value does not entail that they should be, or are in practice, valued by society. Measuring progress solely in economic terms misses the key fact that the economy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. A strong and healthy economy may be desirable, but it is desirable because it allows us to get on with doing the things that are really important: living happy, fulfilling lives.

Once our basic needs are met, aiming for additional wealth does not represent an efficient way to significantly increase well-being. In addition, the model of unending economic growth which we have been following is taking us beyond our environmental limits. In this light, the case for very different drivers of human progress becomes compelling.

NEF cite a number of other surveys, documents and initiatives to support their assertion that

Modern society is organised around a particular model of how to pursue human well-being. Baldly stated, this model contends that increasing economic output leads straightforwardly to improved well-being: a higher standard of living and a better quality of life across society. Economies are organised explicitly around the need to increase GDP, with relatively little regard for how it is distributed; business models are predicated on maximising profits to shareholders; and people are led to believe that the more disposable income they have – and thus the more they consume – the happier they will be. But economic indicators tell us nothing about whether people are in fact experiencing their lives as going well.

In 2005, prominent UK economist Richard Layard called on governments to monitor the well-being of their citizens. Layard’s highly influential book ‘Happiness’ argued that the economic model of human nature used by policy-makers is ‘far too limited’ and that ‘[h]appiness should become the goal of policy, and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analysed as closely as the growth of GNP.’

In 2006 a survey carried out by GfK NOP on behalf of the BBC, revealed that 81 per cent of people supported the idea that government’s prime objective should be the ‘greatest happiness’ rather than the ‘greatest wealth’. And the UK local government White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities defines a new place-shaping role for local government and its partners as ‘the creative use of powers and influence to promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens’.

In 2007, The inter-governmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) hosted an international conference in Istanbul on Measuring the Progress of Societies where participants affirmed a ‘commitment to measuring and fostering the progress of societies in all their dimensions’ and urged the development of data to help form ‘a shared view of societal well-being and its evolution over time’. In the same  year, the UK Conservative Party’s Quality of Life Policy Group calls for action across eight key policy areas, including well-being, stating ‘…we believe now is the time for the UK to agree upon a more reliable indicator of progress than GDP, and to use it as the basis for policy-making’.

Following the 2007 spending review, a number of UK government departments identified well-being as an explicit objective in their Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets for 2008–2011. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions set a PSA target to Tackle poverty and promote greater independence and well-being in later life; the Department of Children Schools and Families co-ordinated work on a PSA target Improve the health and well-being of children and young people and measured its progress against five key indicators including one on emotional health and well-being; whilst the Department of Health became lead department for a PSA target to Promote better health and well-being for all.

In 2008, the French President Nicholas Sarkozy recruited Nobel-Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen together with French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi to form a special commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress. The launch of the Stiglitz Commission prompted the submission of an Early Day Motion to the UK House of Commons by MP Jo Swinson urging ‘the Government to both endorse and participate in the French study, with the aim of improving the well-being, not simply the wealth, of all people in the UK’.

In 2008, HM Treasury published a working paper on Developments in the Economics of Well-being which suggested the role of the Government is to achieve an appropriate balance between policies that promote well-being and policies that maintain economic incentives to support innovation and growth. Whilst raising concerns about intervening explicitly to influence well-being, in relation to measurement it concluded: ‘Well-being – both subjective and objective – is an important issue. It provides a new framework with which to measure progress and analyse policy, providing new evidence for policy-makers to assess how material welfare affects well-being.’

The UK Government’s Foresight Review on Mental Capital and Well-being also released findings from its two-year investigation, concluding that government policies ‘need to nurture the mental capital and wellbeing in the wider population, so that everyone can flourish in their lives’.

Defining Well Being

In order to achieve as broad an understanding and measurement of well-being, NEF have sought to appreciate well-being as

the dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and psychological resources or ‘mental capital’.

They therefore recommend a framework based on an understanding that well-being is :

More than life satisfaction – subjective well-being is a multifaceted, dynamic combination of different factors.

Personal and social dimensions. Research shows that a crucial factor in affecting the quality of people’s experience of life is the strength of their relationships with others.

Feelings, functioning and psychological resources. The traditional focus on happiness and life satisfaction measures in well-being research has often led to an identification of well-being with experiencing good feelings and making positive judgements about how life is going. Psychological resources, such as resilience, should also be included in any national accounts framework and reflect growing recognition of ‘mental capital’ as a key component of well-being.

Personal well-being is broken down into five main components with a number of subcomponents:

emotional well-being (positive feelings and absence of negative feelings);

  • satisfying life;

  • vitality;

  • resilience and self-esteem (self-esteem, optimism and resilience);

  • positive functioning (which covers autonomy, competence, engagement, and meaning and purpose).

Social well-being is made up of two main components:

  • supportive

  • trust and belonging.

A satellite indicator is that of well-being at work. This measures job satisfaction, satisfaction with work-life balance, the emotional experience of work, and assessment of work conditions.

The focus on happiness and life satisfaction measures in much well-being research has often led to an identification of well-being purely with experiencing good feelings and making positive judgements about how life is going. There is a growing consensus in the field, however, about the importance of paying attention to whether people are ‘doing well’, as well as to what extent they are feeling good. This consensus was a key element in informing the design of the European Social Survey well-being module, which aimed to ‘incorporate two distinct theoretical approaches to well-being: the hedonic approach, which is concerned with pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction; and the eudaimonic approach, which is concerned with functioning and the realisation of our potential,’59 a distinction which can be summarised as that between feeling (having, being) and functioning (doing).

Action to Promote Well Being

Seeking to identify potential instruments with which to refocus the lense through which society views and measures itself,  NEF have identified ‘five ways to well-being as policy levers for change’


Social relationships are critical to our well-being. Survey research has found that well-being is increased by life goals associated with family, friends, social and political life and decreased by goals associated with career success and material gains. Governments can shape policies in ways that encourage citizens to spend more time with families and friends and less time in the workplace. For example, employment policy that actively promotes flexible working and reduces the burdens of commuting, alongside policies aimed at strengthening local involvement, would enable people to spend more time at home and in their communities to build supportive and lasting relationships.

Be active

Exercise has been shown to increase mood and has been used successfully to lower rates of depression and anxiety. Being active also develops the motor skills of children and protects against cognitive decline in the elderly. Yet for the first time in history more of the world’s population live in urban than non-urban environments. Through urban design and transport policy, governments influence the way we navigate through our neighbourhoods and towns. To improve our well-being, policies could support more green space to encourage exercise and play and prioritise cycling and walking over car use.

Take notice

In the US, research has shown that practising awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings can improve both the knowledge we have about ourselves and our well-being for several years. But the twenty-first century’s never-ending flow of messages from companies advertising products and services leaves little opportunity to savour or reflect on our experiences. Policy that incorporates emotional awareness training and media education into universal education provision may better equip individuals to navigate their way through the information super-highway with their well-being intact; regulation to create advertising-free spaces could further improve well-being outcomes.

Keep learning

Learning encourages social interaction and increases self-esteem and feelings of competency. Behaviour directed by personal goals to achieve something new has been shown to increase reported life satisfaction. While there is often a much greater policy emphasis on learning in the early years of life, psychological research suggests it is a critical aspect of day-to-day living for all age groups. Therefore, policies that encourage learning, even in the elderly, will enable individuals to develop new skills, strengthen social networks and feel more able to deal with life’s challenges.


Studies in neuroscience have shown that cooperative behaviour activates reward areas of the brain, suggesting we are hard wired to enjoy helping one another. Individuals actively engaged in their communities report higher well-being and their help and gestures have knock-on effects for others. But it is not simply about a one-way transaction of giving. Research by nef shows that building reciprocity and mutual exchange – through giving and receiving – is the simplest and most fundamental way of building trust between people and creating positive social relationships and resilient communities. Governments can choose to invest more in ‘the core economy’: the family, neighbourhood and community which, together, act as the operating system of society.85,86 Policies that provide accessible, enjoyable and rewarding ways of participation and exchange will enable more individuals to take part in social and political life.


In the age of Peak Oil and the Credit Crunch, governments will be behoven to allocate public resources efficiently and avoid waste and so it becomes necessary to equip policy makers

with a better chance of reacting appropriately to the unprecedented ‘triple crunch’ of financial crisis, climate change and oil price shocks.30 They can help with the difficult decisions that need to be taken about how the greatest gains can be brought about from finite resources.

For, as the study notes :

The ecological sustainability of society’s resource use – the degree to which the Earth’s finite resources continue to be available to enable people’s welfare in the future is a crucial issue for governments. Enjoying good experiences today at the cost of substantial pain tomorrow cannot be said to be a mechanism for producing true overall well-being: measures of the ecological sustainability of a society are therefore crucial.

Synergy seeks to provide a forum in which these issues can be discussed and developed, not least with a view to raising public awareness of them for, as NEF recognise :

In order to exert political pressure and to stimulate debate about the role of well-being measures in matters of national policy, greater mobilisation of the public is required. There is a need to find effective mechanisms to engage the public on this issue and to communicate about it in a way which highlights its relevance to people’s day-to-day life.