i. Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West

Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West

A healthy society is one which provides for the wellbeing of all its members. It is one which enables its members to strive to satisfy their needs and which does not put obstacles in their way. In practice, this means equitable access to resources and protection from the anti-social needs of others. However, society is rarely, if ever, perfect and some examples of the difficulties we currently face in the West are described below.

In early, small scale societies relationships were complex. Between each pair of individuals there were several types of relationship and the quality of each had to be balanced with the quality of others. This type of society is the one in which we have evolved to live. In modern society, relationships between individuals often serve a single, relatively simple purpose and people learn to act out a role.

Furthermore, even these relationships are being replaced by technology, and we are beginning to interact either with, or via machines to a significant extent. Indeed, the difficulties involved in learning successful social interaction and in building our social capital have not been helped by the comparatively recent intervention of technology and commerce in our social lives. Social media have communication benefits, but have also led to more distant, impersonal social connections, to online bullying, grooming and exploitation, to commercial opportunities, the spread of fake news, the spread of conspiracy theories, and pressure to conform to fast changing fashions.

The pressure of producing and consuming in an economy which relies on constant growth means that the time available for more complex interaction with family, children, and friends is much reduced. Thus, we are no longer interacting with one another in the way that we have evolved to do. Our social nature is not being satisfied, and we are suffering a poverty of relatedness needs.

Security in the satisfaction of our needs involves an accumulation of material capital, for example the deposit for a home. However, several factors currently conspire against this: the ever-growing wage gap; insecurity of employment; the high cost of purchasing a home; the availability of cheap credit; the pressure to accept it; social and advertising pressures to purchase consumer products; and so on. These are all consequences of consumer-capitalism which, because of its in-built reliance on economic growth, has become exploitative and is approaching the limits of sustainability. The Office of National Statistics Survey reports that “An increasing proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 years in the UK reported that they were finding it difficult or very difficult to get by financially.” In 2016/17 this was 6%. In 2017/18 it had increased to 9%. In particular, “the increase was significant among young men of this age.”

In his book “Cultural Evolution”, Ronald Inglehart says that, in a post-industrial culture, we place greater emphasis on the growth need of self-expression, and data from the World Values Survey bears this out. Culture affects what we believe our growth needs to be and how we go about satisfying them. However, our culture is often steered by royal, aristocratic, political, religious, or commercial elites in their own interest, rather than in that of the general population.

Some have argued that the free-market, consumer economy in the West was brought about by elites as a reaction to a decline in their relative wealth after the two world wars. Again, the statistics bear this out. The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis also provides convincing evidence that the present emphasis on individuality has been steered, by commercial elites and consultant psychologists, into self-expression through consumption. The concept of lifestyle has been promoted, primarily via advertising, and we have been encouraged to see it as a way of expressing our individuality.

If a need is satisfied, then it no longer motivates us. So, to persuade us to buy products, advertising offers false promises. It is often suggested, incorrectly, that a product will satisfy our needs for  relatedness, belonging, and self-esteem. Furthermore, it does so in a subliminal manner, often not recognized by the conscious mind.

The involvement of commerce in the way we make our social connections adds an extra layer of complexity and difficulty to the satisfaction of our relatedness needs. For example, social media influencers are, essentially, engaging in lifestyle-based advertising and earn their living by promoting products. However, they are also role models in terms of behaviour, social status, and appearance. Most cosmetics, for example, are now sold to the 20 to 23 age group, which, ironically, is when the majority of us are physically at our most attractive. There is also a growing tendency for men to use cosmetics.

Whilst people imagine that they are satisfying their needs for individuality, self-esteem and belonging in the way they consume products and services, this is merely a pseudo-satisfier. It is unsurprising, therefore, that mental ill-health is becoming a significant concern, particularly among the younger generations. The survey by the UK’s Office of National Statistics also found that:

  • “Several measures of personal well-being of young women aged 20 to 24 years in the UK have declined in March 2020 from five years previously”.
  • There was “a fall in the percentage of young women in this age group reporting very high life satisfaction and happiness, and very low anxiety.”
  • “There is evidence of increasing anxiety and depression among young women aged 16 to 24 years”. In 2016/17, 26% reported some evidence of depression or anxiety . In 2017/18 this increased to 31%.
  • “There was a decline in young people’s satisfaction with their health …”. In 2016/17, 59% of those aged 16 to 24 years said they were mostly or completely satisfied with their health. In 2017/18, this fell to 52%.
  • “Young people aged 16 to 24 years” … “may also be feeling more disconnected from their communities”. In 2014/15, 57% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood. In 2017/18, this fell to 48%.

To truly satisfy our need for individuality, it is necessary to build up a resistance to these advertising pressures. We can learn to resist some of them, but others are beyond our individual control. As Mark Carney, a past governor of the Bank of England,  put it in his 2020, BBC Reith Lectures, the economy is driving society’s values and not vice versa. He argues that we now need a post-consumer economy which delivers on society’s values. That is, what society holds to be good, rather than what has a monetary value. However, he also believes that this cannot be left to free markets, which tend to follow the same path until a bubble bursts. One way in which the latter can occur is through the over-exploitation and wastage of resources and it is quite likely that we have now begun to see the effects of this. He argues, therefore, that  government intervention is needed to steer markets in the appropriate direction.

Unfortunately, politics has taken a lesson from commerce and is beginning to operate in a similar way, employing psychologists and, with their advice and insights, also exploiting our needs.

h. Resources, Poverty and Wellbeing

Resources, Poverty and Wellbeing

We use resources to create satisfiers. Resources include, for example, time, physical effort, mental effort, emotional resources, and material resources or property. A key feature of resources is that they become depleted with use. Knowledge is not a resource in this sense, however, because it does not become depleted.

Property is the resource that an individual or group of people hold to satisfy their needs and which they will defend. Ownership attaches to property, it is associated with a particular individual or group, and only they have the right to use it. It is human nature to hold property and respect for ownership must be reciprocal if ownership is to exist.

An inability to satisfy one’s needs due to a lack of adequate resources or other obstacles can be described as poverty. Normally, due to its prevalence, this term applies to an inability to satisfy our existence needs. However, it can also be used to describe an inability to satisfy other needs. It can be a poverty of existence and procreation needs, for example an inability to feed or house oneself, a poverty of relatedness needs, for example an absence of kin and other people with whom to form relationships, or a poverty of growth needs, e.g., an inability to develop one’s talents and skills.

The term “wellbeing” is commonly used in the medical profession as an indicator of physical and psychological health. Here, however, it is given a broader meaning, i.e., the extent to which the needs of an individual or population are satisfied and, of course, the extent to which contra-needs are not.

Wellbeing is far more than “something that it is nice to have”. It affects the way in which we behave as individuals and the success or failure of a society. There are positive and negative feedback loops between individuals and society. If society, which can be regarded as a satisfier, provides wellbeing then individuals will support it, will be able to pursue their needs and will be better able to contribute to that society. This is a positive feedback loop. Conversely, if society becomes a contra-satisfier, for example when a minority exploit the majority, then the latter will become alienated, engage in conflict and the society will fail. This is a negative feedback loop.

Different cultures provide for the needs of their population in different ways, and their success in doing so varies. It is possible to evaluate a culture from the way it uses the available resources to satisfy the needs of its population and others with whom it interacts. In general, resources satisfy the wellbeing of the population most efficiently if they are used in an egalitarian manner. That is not to say that every resource should be apportioned equally. As individuals ascend the tree of needs their needs begin to differ from those of others, and so too do the resources required to satisfy them. Thus, equitable sharing is related to needs satisfied rather than the resources applied.

Numerous attempts have been made to measure the wellbeing of populations: the Gini Index, a measure of the income distribution of a country’s residents and thought to be a good indicator of the level of inequality; Bhutan’s measure of Gross National Happiness; the OECD’s Better Life Index; the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW); subjective wellbeing (SWB); and so on. In the author’s view, however, it may be possible to measure an individual’s wellbeing in terms of the value they place on the resources available to satisfy their needs. For example, if they place a high value on personal time or money then this implies that they have insufficient to satisfy their needs. All these approaches have their flaws and can be criticised. I do not propose to look at them in detail, therefore. I merely wish to establish the principle that wellbeing can be measured, and serious attempts are being made to do so.

e. Individuals, Generations, Age-groups, and the Prioritisation of Needs

Individuals, Generations, Age-groups, and the Prioritisation of Needs

Pursuing the satisfaction of our natural human needs is what motivates us. However, much effort is involved in doing so. It is a lifelong process, and we meet many challenges on the way. If we can overcome those challenges, then this contributes to a general sense of happiness and wellbeing. Happiness is a relatively short-lived emotion that we experience from time to time. However, wellbeing is a state of mind which persists for so long as we are satisfied. On the other hand, if we encounter insurmountable obstacles, then we can experience frustration, a low sense of wellbeing, ill health or even death.

Maslow’s theory maintains that needs lower in the hierarchy must be largely satisfied before we can move on to higher needs. However, as explained in an earlier article, there is little evidence that we do actually prioritise our needs in this way. There is not a simple correlation between age and the hierarchy of needs. Rather, several other factors can cause significant differences between generations and age-groups. They can also cause significant differences between individuals from the same generation and age-group. Examples of these factors include:

  1. Biological Factors. For example, our individual capabilities and the physiological and health risks that we face in childhood, as a parent, or in old age.
  2. Social Role. At different stages in our lives, society provides us with different forms of support and demands different forms of contribution. Some are common to all societies. For example, in childhood our existence needs are provided for by our parents. However, support and demands also vary according to the nature of our society, our gender, and our socio-economic status. Social support and demands are significant factors in deciding how we prioritise our needs at different stages in our lives.
  3. Cultural Change. The culture of a society can alter rapidly from generation to generation, and the prevailing culture in our formative years will affect our priorities in later life. Thus, different generations can be typified by different priorities, irrespective of age. Today, cultural change is far more rapid than it has been in the past and is, therefore, having a much greater influence.
  4. Significant Events. World Wars, epidemics, and economic depressions, when they occur, can reshape the priorities of all generations. However, if they occur during our formative years, they can have a particularly long-lasting effect on our priorities. This can cause different generations to be typified by different priorities.
  5. Time to Learn. It can take considerable time and effort to learn how to satisfy a need, sustain that satisfaction and deal with the difficulties associated with doing so. The natural world and human society are both extraordinarily complex. Understanding them and learning successful behaviour requires much effort, therefore, and whilst making that effort we age.

Thus, whilst there is a general trend in the way that different age-groups prioritise their needs, there is also considerable variability as different generations come to occupy an age-group. There is also considerable variability between individuals within an age-group.

Some examples from Western society may serve to demonstrate how the above factors interact to cause a general trend in the priorities of different age groups. Whilst this trend may be true of humanity in general it is not necessarily so for the individual.

  1. When we are born, we aspire to satisfy our existence needs, i.e., food, warmth, shelter, etc. Satisfiers are, of course, provided by our parents and we must merely cry or smile when a need arises. Our social skills are innate, and we have yet to develop the cognitive skills to pursue higher needs.
  2. In our teens and early twenties, security in the provision of our basic needs continues to be provided by our parents, and so, our aspirations focus on social relatedness. Historically, we would seek a partner and reproduce in our teens and early twenties, so biological factors may also have a part to play.
  3. Later, as we raise children, our existence needs must be secured for us to do so successfully. An example is the desire to own a home of our own because, in most cases, our need for shelter will previously have been satisfied in a less secure way by living with our parents or by renting.
  4. It has been suggested that our large brains evolved to enable successful social interaction. However, these brains also bestow on us the ability to safeguard the satisfaction of our existence and relatedness needs. This is where our aspirations are next likely to be focused, therefore. However, the way in which we satisfy this need is also affected by our cultural upbringing. In some cases, it may be by accumulating wealth and property. In other cases, it may be by building strong social connectedness and support networks.
  5. Our large brains also give us a need for meaning in our lives, curiosity, creativity, and an ability to master complex skills.  It is to these that we turn when other needs are largely satisfied. Due to the time involved in learning how to satisfy all our needs, these tend to come to the fore as we become older. It is notable, however, that some creative people will forego the satisfaction of lesser needs.
  6. A culture can assign different roles to different genders. Furthermore, hormones are known to affect the state of mind of both sexes. It is conceivable, therefore, that there are gender differences in the way that we prioritise and satisfy our needs. Unfortunately, little objective research has been done on this subject.
  7. Finally, evidence from surveys shows that the need for safety or freedom from existential threat is a more significant aspiration amongst older people.

In very general terms then, but with much variance, the Western trend in priorities can be summarized as: the satisfaction of existential needs as a small child; relatedness needs in our teens and early twenties; safety and procreation needs in later adulthood; and security, safety and growth needs thereafter.