How happy are we, really? How to unlock a life with purpose

There’s a larger focus than ever on our individual wellness, but how does the nation fare according to the wellbeing index? And what can we do to improve?

In 1972, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan came up with a big idea.

Instead of measuring its progress against just economic growth and material gains using gross domestic product, Bhutan would add another indicator — a Gross National Happiness Index.

In what was then a revolutionary move, the landlocked South Asian country began evaluating the population’s overall wellbeing and happiness across areas such as living standards, health, education, community vitality and ecological diversity and resilience.

Now, more countries have woken up to the idea of tracking their progress towards goals for a better life.

Dr Kate Lycett, a senior research fellow with the School of Psychology at Deakin University, says some countries — including New Zealand, Wales, Italy, Scotland, Slovenia and some in Latin America — are going even further.

“(They are) working to build economies that deliver human and ecological wellbeing as their ultimate goal, alongside standard metrics of economic growth,”  Dr Lycett says.

Is GDP the wrong tool for measuring what matters?

Many economists and social scientists agree there’s more to life than the cold numbers of traditional economic statistics — and a different lens to GDP is needed to measure progress.

Political economist and Wellbeing Economy Alliance co-founder Dr Katherine Trebeck says our approach to the economy has been “back to front”.

“Policymakers are recognising that in the 21st century just pursuing infinite growth and having an economy designed for and dependent on that growth is no longer good enough and is pushing Mother Nature beyond what she can bear,” Dr Trebeck says.

“If we look at so many of the crises facing the world today, we need to think of the economy as being in service of the goals that people and the planet really need, so that we can design it deliberately for those outcomes.”

What does the Wellbeing Index survey reveal?

In 2023, the Australian government released its first national wellbeing framework, called Measuring What Matters.

The framework tracks our progress towards a more healthy, secure, sustainable, cohesive and prosperous nation.

Dr Lycett says it is “a big step in the right direction” but Australia still has a lot of work to do — with cost of living pressures, uncertainty about the environment and climate change, and recent floods, droughts and bushfires all affecting our wellbeing.

And how we are feeling is reflected in the statistics.

The latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index survey — by Deakin University and Australian Unity in 2022 — revealed Australians’ satisfaction with life as a whole was at its lowest level in 21 years.

“The 2022 results showed that young people in particular — those aged between 18 and 25 — were being weighed down by feelings of anxiety, stress, depression and climate worry,” says Dr Lycett, who led the survey.

The worrying outlook was backed up by research by YouGov for the Orygen Institute in 2023.

It found 76 per cent of young Australians aged 16-25 were concerned about climate change, with 30 per cent “very concerned”.

Two-thirds of the young people surveyed (67 per cent) said climate concerns were having a negative impact on youth mental health, particularly young females (74 per cent).

Mental health crisis among our youth

The “rising tide” of mental ill health in young Australians is a public health crisis, Orygen executive director Professor Patrick McGorry says.

The prominent psychiatrist and 2010 Australian of the Year is leading calls to change how we respond to this “alarming and unacceptable situation”.

In a paper in The Medical Journal of Australia, Prof McGorry and professors David Coghill and Michael Berk wrote the decline in young people’s mental health is a “worldwide megatrend”.

“The consequences of this rising tide of mental ill health are profound.

“We invest heavily to bring young people to the threshold of productive adult life. “This nurturing of human potential represents the creation of ‘mental wealth’.

“Yet this wealth is being squandered,” they wrote.

The trio says mental ill health weakens maturity, relationships, educational attainment, workplace culture and productivity.

Understanding the megatrends driving the decline in mental health, including the role of social media, is the first step towards reform.

Overhauling both primary and secondary mental healthcare services to better meet the needs of young people with mental illness is also urgently needed, according to the trio.

What is being done to improve our wellbeing?

Many organisations, community groups and individuals are working to improve our collective wellbeing.

Dr Trebeck says this includes those “rolling up their sleeves and starting to put into practice some of the core components of a different approach to the economy — whether that’s through tool libraries or circular economy practices or co-housing”.

Dr Lycett agrees positive action is taking place.

She points to ACT Independent senator David Pocock working to change the law so politicians and policymakers are forced to consider the impact of climate harm on young people and future generations when making decisions.

When it comes to individual wellbeing, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index pinpoints three core areas that support the so-called “golden triangle of happiness”.

“The first is strong personal relationships, which is a really important driver, because loneliness is a big issue right now,” Dr Lycett says.

“The second is standard of living, or sense of financial wellbeing.

“And third, achieving in life, which is really about having a sense of purpose and could be as simple as volunteering in your local community.”

Dr Lycett says while other factors, such as health and personal safety, are also important for overall wellbeing, “the research shows really consistently … that these three life areas are the most important”.

Ultimately, she says, it is going to take individuals, organisations, institutions and governments to join forces to make the journey towards a more sustainable and socially just future not just a possibility, but a shared responsibility.

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Written by Liz McGrath.