In the developed west it may seem as though we are drowning in talk of well-being. Of course, no one should be faulted for wanting to ‘be well’. Indeed, the drive to feel secure, safe, loved, respected, and self-actualized, is what makes us human in the first place. In the west we have more or less progressed to tick the first two boxes of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Most of us are physiologically okay, and we have a level of safety and security that our ancestors could never have dreamed of.
However, if we look at the United Nations’ Sustainable Developments Goals, we notice that they almost exclusively focus on physiological and safety needs. This is because in low and middle-income countries, health care still has a long way to go. According to the UN:
at least half the global population does not have access to essential health services and many of those who do suffer undue financial hardship, potentially pushing them into extreme poverty.https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg3
Obviously, eradicating poverty goes a long way to ensuring better health outcomes. But well-being is embedded in all of the sustainable development goals. Most importantly, progress depends on peace, justice, and strong institutions. The institutions that support high levels of well-being in the developed world are the result of centuries of democratic progress that have lead to the creation of more equal, open societies. Increasing well-being in the developing world is not just about ending hunger and poverty, but also reducing inequality and promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation.
When confronted with statistics and stories from the developing world, it is too easy to be pessimistic and dispute the notion of progress. In his book, Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker lists the astonishing number of lives saved by scientific advancements such as vaccines and other medical discoveries. As Pinker points out, we need to be realistic:
progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would not be progress. That would be a miracle. Progress is not a miracle; it’s the result of solving problems. Problems are inevitable, and solutions create new problems that must be solved in their turn.https://quillette.com/2019/01/14/enlightenment-wars-some-reflections-on-enlightenment-now-one-year-later/
Covid and Beyond
The most obvious problem threatening global well-being is the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic downturns and rising unemployment are early indicators that global well-being will be significantly affected. An instinctive reaction to the risk of infection is heightened disgust, which tends to make us more selfish. At every level of human organisation, from the individual to the national, we want to protect ourselves. At the same time, global cooperation has never been more vital. The Finnish government is working with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to mitigate and plan for the current and future consequences of the virus.
Locally, there is concern that the health and well-being of young people from low-income families will be negatively impacted by the epidemic. Lack of access to hot meals due to school closures, as well as increased social isolation, have led to calls for the state and municipalities to ensure access to social security for those most at risk of marginalisation.
The focus on the pandemic does not mean that other domestic and international challenges cease to exist. As our attention and resources are diverted, we should not overlook the challenges faced by those in poverty, especially women and children.
An estimated 303,000 women around the world died due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth in 2015. Almost all of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and almost two thirds of those were in sub-Saharan Africa.https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg3
When the self-help industry and other commercial interests co-opt the language of well-being in order to profit from basic human insecurities, we have cause to be cynical. There is a cure or a cream for ailments we didn’t even know afflicted us. This ’concept-creep’ risks turning our needs into market choices, and further alienates us from the rest of humanity. The things that we share: such as the state of the environment and the design of cities, are also major factors in our ability to feel good.
Clear-eyed solutions to problems of well-being will be characterised by widening our circle of empathy, embracing scientific thinking, and encouraging open societies. The selfish, irrational, and authoritarian tendencies of the current American administration are hopefully only a temporary impediment to continued longer-term progress towards healthy lives and fundamental well-being.
- Burden of Disease. 2017. Accessed 26 May 2020. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/dalys-rate-from-all-causes
- Good Health and Well-Being. 2020. Accessed 26 May 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/SDG_3_-_Good_Health_and_well-being – Healthy_Lives
- Low-income teens struggle to cope. Yle, 25 May 2020. Article from Yle News. Accessed 26 May 2020.
- Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. New York: Viking Penguin.
- Pinker, S. 2019. Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later. Accessed 26 May 2020. https://quillette.com/2019/01/14/enlightenment-wars-some-reflections-on-enlightenment-now-one-year-later/
- Preparedness for the Covid-19 Disease. 2020. Accessed 26 May 2020. https://stm.fi/en/coronavirus-preparedness
- Warley, W. 2020. COVID-19 threatens decades of progress. Devex, 09 April 2020. Article from Devex online. Accessed 26 May 2020. https://www.devex.com/news/covid-19-threatens-decades-of-progress-on-global-poverty-report-says-96965