Michael Fry may not be familiar with the word ‘wellness’, but that in itself does not bring it into the kind of disrepute that he implies. In fact, the term has been around since the mid-17th century; although, as with many words, its meaning has undergone some change through usage, it originally served as the most obvious antonym of ‘illness’. That it’s meaning has changed somewhat should not surprise us, as language is organic. It evolves.
I have another word for Michael to add to his vocabulary; ‘misoneism’ meaning hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change. From this, we get the word ‘moneist’, which may or may not describe him. Also, ‘moneistic’, which would certainly apply to his attitude.
Michael informs us that “there is not a professional economist in the world who places absolute, unquestioning faith in GDP figures”. I’m glad about that. Because there are a fair few of us who are disinclined to place absolute, unquestioning faith in economists. When he assures us that “economists are always wary of placing total trust in them [GDP measures] “, many of us read this as “economists are always wary of being pinned down to any number”. They do like a bit of deniability. And who can blame them? If John Kenneth Galbraith is to be believed – and he surely is – then “the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”.
The difference between economics and real science is that, whereas the latter seeks to arrive at conclusions which take account of all the facts for which there is evidence, the economist is better known for omitting facts that are in evidence but which don’t sit comfortably with the desired conclusion. An eversion to the holistic flows naturally from this.
Measuring wellness may be more difficult than counting beans. But I suspect the biggest problem for economists is that it is an attempt to include in estimations of economic performance some of the things that economists prefer to leave out. The National Wellness Institute lists these factors as the six dimensions of wellness: emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. In a sense, wellness is a measure of the effects on people of economic models in operation.
To me, this seems eminently sensible. Imagine if you designed and built a car which performed exceptionally well on all the customary measure – fuel consumption, emissions, acceleration, carrying capacity – but which, in use, cause the occupants to die of asphyxiation. Would it not be advisable to take account of the effect on people in such circumstances?
Wellness may be a novel concept to Michael Fry, but it is simply a convenient label for the aggregate of all the things we might take into account if when somebody asked: “How are you?”, we attempted to provide the most honest and comprehensive answer possible. (Don’t do this at home, children. People will think you’re weird.) It may seem like it’s strictly for the New Age crystal huggers and Gwyneth Paltrow worshippers, but it’s actually fundamental to a proper understanding of economic performance. Wellness may be thought of as one of the outputs of the economy. We should be striving to maximise wellness in the same way, and for the same reasons, as the widget-maker tries to maximise her output of widgets.
Experience and history tell us clearly enough why economists would baulk at their models being assessed in terms of the effect they have on people’s wellbeing. To date, they haven’t had too much success with mechanical economic systems in which people are regarded as mere production and consumption units and any wellness deficiency attributed to their inadequacy rather than being accounted for as a function of the economy.
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