A new vision of wellbeing is on the horizon. And together with sustainability, resilience, deep ecology and Gaia we need to embrace an inclusive and holistic concept of wellbeing.

The focus is shifting. The commitment of governments around the world to the singular goal of growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is being questioned and a new understanding is emerging. Economists, industrialists and policymakers are realising that GDP is not enough and is not a guarantee of a good society. For many seemingly wealthier countries, GDP has moved exponentially upwards but the health and happiness of the population have fallen. At the same time the stress on our natural resources has increased out of all proportion (peak oil is only the tip of the iceberg).

The idea of ‘wellbeing’ has often been very narrowly interpreted and poorly understood. It has been associated with personal growth and personal development; a search for job satisfaction, work/life balance, more time for yoga, walking, gardening and resting. But this view is changing.

Radical ecologists are now proposing a decrease in economic output, a reduction in material consumption, the setting of limits to our use of non-renewable resources, and an increase in the growth of human wellbeing and the wellbeing of planet Earth.

Cambridge University’s Well-being Institute has been established for the scientific study of wellbeing. The launching of the Happy Planet Index by the new economics foundation (nef) is a step in the right direction, and nef has now established a Centre for Well-being too. In other words, this topic is now being taken very seriously. Richard Layard of LSE has launched Action for Happiness, which is a movement for positive social change. One of the pioneers (as we reported in Resurgence last year) has been the government of Bhutan, which launched a measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in place of Gross National Product (GNP) long before anyone in Western politics had the courage to challenge the orthodoxy of GNP. Just a year later, we have European politicians such as David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy talking about the need to focus on wellbeing. As a result, in a recent survey of households in the UK the Office for National Statistics asked questions such as “To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?”

These are all good starting points. A shift of emphasis from exclusive attention to economic growth, high living standards, social mobility and materialism to a politics of wellbeing is very welcome. The question is: how authentic and genuine is this shift?

The establishment is very good at hijacking or even stealing the words of the green movement and then carrying on with ‘business as usual’. For example, the word ‘sustainability’ is often used both by politicians and by business leaders, but when we then examine their actions and practices it is difficult to believe that they have understood the meaning of the word. It appears that they want to have their cake and eat it: they wish to achieve sustainability without disengaging themselves from the causes of ‘unsustainability’ such as globalisation, the free market, mass transportation and deep-sea oil exploration. The truth is that if they wish to embrace wellbeing they will have to be more honest about it and turn away from their clear commitment to unlimited economic growth and the religion of materialism.

Wellbeing is not merely an extrinsic value: it is an extrinsic and an intrinsic value at the same time. It is, in the long term, impossible for an individual to be happy when others are suffering from starvation, social injustice and wars. Also, how can an individual be healthy on an unhealthy planet? Health of the person and health of the planet are two sides of the same coin.

Individuals and communities live in a seamless web of relationships. If those relationships are flourishing, individuals and communities will flourish. If the web of relationships is in turmoil, there can be no tranquillity, no harmony in the lives of individuals, their families or their communities. Wellbeing is as much a spiritual value as it is an economic necessity.

If we suffer from fear, anxiety, greed, anger, craving and selfishness, then wellbeing will remain a distant goal. But if we cultivate compassion, courage, caring, gratitude and humility, then wellbeing will be near at hand. Psychological wellbeing is a first step to social and environmental wellbeing, but without social and environmental wellbeing, psychological wellbeing will remain a distant dream.

We are happy only when we make others happy – it is a seamless process. If the forests are gone, if biodiversity is diminished, if water is polluted, if cruelty is inflicted on animals, then there can be no personal peace or social coherence. If human communities are damaged because of poverty and deprivation, then they will be forced to encroach more upon natural resources. Therefore social justice is an essential part of wellbeing.

So the big vision of wellbeing is that it must be a personal, social and ecological whole: Happy Person, Happy People, Happy Planet!

Satish Kumar is Editor-in-Chief of Resurgence magazine.