Wellbeing - the best measure of success

There is growing interest in well-being ideas, particularly with reference to mental health in our capitalist world. Am I sick and is that my fault, or do I live in a sick society that contributes negatively to my wellbeing? That is a question some psychologists seem to be addressing at last, and there is now a serious debate about whether capitalism and wellbeing are compatible and if capitalism could ever deliver wellbeing for all of us and our world. What follows is a summary of wellbeing, some research into wellbeing and capitalism, with a variety of contextual comments.


WHO defines health as the state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The Wellbeing Economy Alliance wants to see:
  • No poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good mental health and well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • Reduced inequalities
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on land
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • Partnerships for all those goals

They think this is a start towards a much better economy that includes and benefits everyone, not just the rich.

In January this year, New Zealand published a Wellbeing Budget where aspects such as poverty, inequality are all addressed. Edinburgh and Glasgow councils have both taken an interest in these ideas. Monbiot’s set of ‘Principles and Stories’ from ‘Out of the Wreckage’ contribute to a new, powerful political narrative for what we want from our truly democratic world.

The Midlands Psychology Group state:

  • There is an enormous body of evidence to suggest that emotional distress is not a ‘psychological’ matter but has its source in the social and material world’ in which we live.
  • The health of the individual citizen is more strongly affected by the spread of wealth than by its absolute level.
  • Psychiatric morbidity is associated with markers of inequality such as unemployment, low income and impoverished education.
  • ·       Studies show that self-reported happiness is more closely related to political beliefs than levels of income.
  • ·       The Group asks if a working environment characterised by a deregulated culture of long hours, excessive demands and contractual and financial insecurity, where there is a risk of falling into debt or poverty with little chance of moving upwards into a better way of life can really be said to provide a therapeutic environment (towards overall wellbeing).
  • The Group also question the notion that we should always be striving for ‘happiness’ and the idea that if we are not happy we should be encouraged to look inwards, rather than to the society in which we live.

Steven Joseph reminds us that psychology exists in a political environment, and should be aware of the state narratives under which psychology works. Perhaps it should be more of an agent for social change. Oliver James differentiated between ‘selfish capitalism’ (the USA is a prime example where neoliberal ideas prevail and materialist ideals are valued) and unselfish capitalism (citing Denmark as an example).  

Studies show that materialism correlates with mental illness including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder. A focus on materialistic motives and goals show that they prevent the meeting of human needs including security, community participation, feelings of competence and autonomy, and if those needs are not met there is a greater risk of mental illness. There is twice the incidence of mental illness in English speaking counties than in mainland Europe and Japan.
Studies that included the question ‘Have you ever felt that you were going to have a nervous breakdown’ put to people in 1957, 1976, and 1996 have shown a big increase in those who gave the answer ‘Yes’.
 Concluding, Oliver James proposes that the theory of ‘Selfish Capitalism’ offers a new way to analyse mental health and wellbeing.
Buddhism suggests that happiness is an absence of suffering. ‘Mindfulness Integrated CBT’ (an intervention on mental health) was originally called ‘Equanimity Training’. This contrasts with western materialism where the possession of ‘stuff’ and property is supposed to bring happiness, but clearly doesn’t.

The context 

There is a critique on whether capitalism can deliver well-being, because: 

1.     66% of the population have no-one they can share worries about relationships, money and mental health. There is a huge problem of loneliness in the western world.

2.     Suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 16 and 65.

3.     Mental health is such that 1 in 4 of us will have an episode of mental illness. There is a huge problem of depression and anxiety associated with the use of drugs in the western world.

4.     People have started to wonder if our society is wrong or if it is ‘me’. The film ‘Shrek 3rd’ promotes the narrative that we can be whatever we want to be. The only thing stopping us is us. This is the ‘American Dream’ and it has been a very powerful narrative which suggests if we don’t ‘make it’, it is our fault. The reality is that social mobility is very limited and those that overcome their background are very few.

5.     Capitalism assumes we are individuals struggling to survive in a hostile world with limited resources. It promotes the idea of ‘Me’ as opposed to ‘Us’. This can lead in America (US) where people have protested against the wearing of masks because it is seen as an infringement on freedom. Such a stance exalts the rights of the individual while minimising responsibilities to the wider collective (Me vs Us). Why is that we don’t have a stronger idea of ‘Me AND Us’? The ‘Me’ ideas in capitalism are said by some writers in ‘Evonomics’ to promote psychopathic behaviour in Board members of Corporations, eg in in redundancies or the climate.  

There is a realisation that capitalism does not work to the benefit of most people, or the planet: 

1.     There is massive poverty throughout the world. Here in the UK we have food poverty and food banks, where even those in work are struggling for food and a place to live. 8.4 million people suffer from food insecurity in the UK (which breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). 1 in 8 schools have no school library (most of these are in ‘deprived’ areas). Good education contributes massively to wellbeing and to the alleviation of poverty.

2.     There is a huge wealth and income gap between the rich and poor, which is getting worse. The richest 1% own 50% of the world’s wealth. Of all new income from global growth, only 5% goes to the poorest 60%. Jeff Bezos apparently made $13 billion in one day ‘while the companies he owns denies sick leave, hazard pay and a safe workplace’ to his workers. Overall, 467 billionaires made $731 billion since March because of help from the Federal Reserve for the stock market (Guardian 11.8.20).

3.     However there is lots of money floating around in the world. It is being used for Hedge Funds, the stock exchange, Futures, buying property, the overall result being that money is being withdrawn from the economy rather than circulated as capitalist theory proposes.

There are alternative narratives. Doughnut economic ideas is being explored in Amsterdam. It proposes that production should not deplete the limited resources of the planet, but replenish it. Growth (a basic tenet of capitalism) is ridiculous in a world of limited and finite resources, so we should be working to preserve our world. 

Universal Basic Income (UBI) has attracted a lot of attention as a means of current addressing huge administrative costs, alleviating poverty and improving wellbeing, while recognising the need for respect for human dignity. Such an idea would provide real security about basic needs, and facilitate progress up the Maslow pyramid towards a more rewarding life. Studies showed it to have had a positive effect on mental well-being in Finland. Hull, Sheffield, Liverpool and Norwich are all looking at introducing Universal Basic Income as are many other cities worldwide. There are 20 UBI Lab Networks around the UK. 

The above represents a part of the contextual aspects to do with well-being. Other aspects include: 

Individualism v community

Therapeutic help for people with mental health issues has tended to focus on the individual. While this had real value in promoting the value of each and every person, it fitted very well with capitalist ideas where we are isolated individuals, not part of a wider community. Group Work really works. If that is true, why wouldn’t Community Work—getting people to work together on issues, also work?


Black Lives Matter’ has highlighted the depths of institutional racism. Black and Asian people have suffered ongoing discrimination (or oppression) for too long. In the US segregated housing, poorer prospects as to careers, wages, and lower life spans are prevalent. One third of black people can expect to be imprisoned, have longer sentences (and thus lose voting rights).

Effects of pandemic

The Covid 19 lockdown has shown us how much we, the people, and businesses, sit on a knife edge for survival and that surely contributes to ongoing anxiety, and therefore poorer mental health. It might also make us resistant (too scared) to change. Do we really need to live on the edge? Common Weal have suggested in ‘Resilient Scotland’ a new approach, which includes wellbeing, although this is associated more with citizenship and participation rather than physical, mental and social wellbeing. There are also plenty of other ideas about alternative economies.


The evidence is that capitalism and its materialistic approach does not satisfy our human needs for physical, mental and social wellbeing. A capitalist world seems to be incapable of meeting those human needs or the needs of the planet.  Surely there is an economic and social system that is less stressful and better for us and our world. A system that promotes real resilience is needed.


Author: John Rogers

Shockwaves from Intu’s collapse can impact beyond Braehead

Intu, owner of Braehead Shopping Centre, has gone bust, an outlier of a coming retail property market collapse. The company also owns the giant Trafford Centre in Manchester and Gateshead Metro Centre. The collapse is not just about Covid19 – it was on the cards from February this year when a major debtor pulled out of talks to extend time to pay.

Administrators KPMG have persuaded creditors to lend £12m to keep the Intu holdings open until a buyer can be found, if a buyer can be found. 

The impact on Glasgow could stretch beyond Braehead. Last year the City Council gave the giant developer Peel Holdings permission to build a £100m “leisure and shopping outlet” on a site near the Riverside Museum. 

But with a 24.6% stake in Intu, Peel Holdings is going to take a considerable hit from the company’s collapse. 

Peel’s “Western Harbour” proposed 20,000m² of retail units, more than 10,000m² for leisure uses and restaurants/bars totalling almost 4000m². Their original proposal claimed the emphasis would be on leisure, but when the detailed plans emerged the amount of retail had expanded. Glasgow’s planning committee still gave them the go-ahead. Glasgow planners retail obsession seems unbreakable. 

What kind of partner are Peel Holdings, for a supposedly economically and socially progressive City Council? Peel is mostly owned by the Whitaker family, and it operates through a complex network of no fewer than 342 companies. Its ultimate owner is Tokenhouse Ltd, a Whitaker family trust based in the Isle of Man. 

In 2013, their influence on development decisions in Liverpool had become so pervasive that ExUrbe, a think tank run by former Labour MP Peter Gilfoyle, concluded: “Peel have blurred the lines between public and private interests.” 

Their expansion into a major developer comes from cashing in on the UK’s industrial collapse. They own what’s left of British Coal; they parlayed their own loss-making quarries into a significant bank of reclaimed land; they are a massive player throughout the North West, owning Media City, home of the BBC, Salford Quays, Manchester Canal and a massive land bank along the North West waterways from Manchester to the Wirral. They have bought this land for a song, as part of the “regeneration” scam that has gripped local authorities and governments since Michael Heseltine was Environment Secretary. 

According to the Salford Star they have received massive amounts of public  money for their Salford schemes (NB this article is from 2012). 

In his 2019 book Who Owns England, Guy Shrubsole describes Peel Holdings as one of the 'secretive' companies that "hoards England's land":

“Peel Holdings operates behind the scenes, quietly acquiring land and real estate, cutting billion-pound deals and influencing numerous planning decisions. Its investment decisions have had an enormous impact, whether for good or ill, on the places where millions of people live and work.

In June 2013, Margaret Hodge, then Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, accused the Peel Group of tax dodging, and stated that some parts of the group pay on average 10% Corporation Tax, and that some of the more profitable parts of the Peel Group pay 0% Tax. 

They are a huge player in Scoland. As well as extensive residential and commercial developments, they are also the owner of Clydeport. They built the new port for the INEOS “dragon ships” bringing in fracked gas from the United States. They are currently trying to convince North Ayrshire Council to allow them to build a gas power station next to the port they own at Hunterston, based on burning imported gas.

What the Intu collapse shows is that there is no going back to a pre-pandemic economy, along the old lines. How many of the financial companies the Council is so proud of attracting will be deep in debt to a property market – commercial and residential – facing a major collapse? Thousands of empty retail spaces and thousands of unemployed people walking away from their mortgages is what we are facing in Glasgow. 

In any case why should we agree to going back to this kind of economy that offers little to the people of Glasgow while enriching developers? In a recent open letter to Council Leader Susan Aitken, 14 campaigns and organisations, called on the City Council to respond to the current crisis by dissolving their Post-Pandemic Recovery Group, whose membership could be called “the usual suspects”. They said that instead the council should embark on a radical planning adventure, involving citizens fully in deciding the economic future. 

Over the years, local authorities have been educated by neo-liberalism to accept that the market knows best. They no longer challenge developer-driven spatial planning, and are complicit in it. And the Scottish government, which rejected an opportunity to democratise planning in last year’s Planning Bill, is equally guilty. 

As Planning Democracy (one of the signatories of the Open Letter) are constantly pointing out, our planning system gives massive power to developers and little power to citizens. In terms of the spaces in our cities, we get what they choose to give us rather than what we need or want - in Glasgow that has meant shopping, student accommodation and small flats.

Infrastructure and transport is invariably all about roads and cars. In fact Peel has been accused of doing everything in its power to prevent Manchester’s plans for a congestion charge. This is exactly what we don’t need. Get Glasgow Moving, the campaign for public transport, was also a signatory of the Open Letter. 

The neo-liberal policies that have dominated development will simply not do any more. It has been proved that they don’t tackle poverty, ill health or inequality – Glaswegians are the living and dying proof of it. We need to plan a just, green and socially useful city for all its citizens. 

Join us in thinking through how to bring into existence the social movement that can make this happen. Register here for First Sunday, July 5th, 4.00pm to 5.30pm 

(The Open Letter to Susan Aitken. Read it here)

Author: Penny Cole