Tag Archives: Wellbeing

The Geography of Happiness

by Lisa Mol

On the 25th of November, the government will ask the independent national statistician Jil Matheson to devise questions  which will help to determine the general state of ‘happiness’ in the UK. In this climate of recession and general pessimism this may seem like an odd thing to do, but on the other hand maybe we should find what makes us happy and focus on that instead.

This idea of ‘national happiness’ is by no means a new one. Bhutan is widely known for its use of happiness as a well-being factor and employs a ‘national happiness committee’ who gauge GNH (Gross National Happiness) to make sure the citizens of this Himalaya state are as happy as they can possibly be.  And it looks like they did the right thing. While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world’s lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years. While this is still lower than the life expectancy in most of the world, the fact is that the life span of an average Bhutanese citizen has increased by 30%. Quite an accomplishment.

So what sort of things should we be looking at if we want to gauge happiness? The usual topics spring to mind such as friendships, relationships, family life, financial security. John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as ‘a balance of individual and community interests’.  Bereton et al (2008) conducted some really interesting research on the influence of environment on a person’s happiness. They found that a multitude of geographical factors, such as proximity to coasts (good) and landfills (bad) influence a person’s happiness. Major transport links could either be good or bad as “the impact of proximity to major transport routes has different effects depending on the type of, and distance to, the amenity in question, e.g., while reasonable proximity to international airports increases well-being, close proximity to major roads decreases it”. They concluded that geography and the environment are as important as the most critical socio-economic and socio-demographic factors, such as unemployment and marital status.

In this light, it appears that the environment is a sound investment as a pleasant and clean environment with access to greenery and fresh air contributes as much to the happiness of the population as factors previously thought more important. So to boost both happiness and the economy maybe we should get  companies to invest in the environment and ‘green our capitalism’. Sayer’s 2009 study into the economics of sustainable economies is rather pessimistic , stating that the environment simply cannot afford a growing economy and the huge carbon footprint we currently produce as we see monetary growth as a measure of our success. But what if we follow the example of Bhutan and concentrate on happiness rather than economic growth? If we see increased environmental health as an addition to our happiness then surely that can be seen as a profit too? So yes, bring on the happiness survey, and let’s reassess where investments can give us huge happiness profits.

Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood. The Guardian 14/11/2010

A new measure of well-being from a happy little Kingdom. The New York Times 04/10/2005

Brereton, F., Clinch, J. P., Ferreira, S. (2008) Happiness, geography and the environment. Ecological Economics 65: 386 – 396

Sayer, A. (2009) Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened? Area 41 (3) 350 – 353

iPad controversy highlights growing inequality in China

by Michelle Brooks

Despite a plethora of reasons why I am not holding a new Apple iPad (mostly financial), recent news of a spate of suicides at the Foxconn plant near Shenzhen in China where it is made has forced me to consider concerns that are of course hardly new to Geographers.  Don’t get me wrong, I am as gadget hungry as the next person but I was struck by the sense of crisis that led to this final act of desperation, and as a consumer of electronics (like the laptop I am writing on) I can’t help but feel deeply my part, the consumers part, in all of this. The 300,000 workers who live at the Longhua factory work six days a week and average overtime is 120 hours per month equating to an average 70 hour week, the maximum set by Apple. Workers must not talk during working hours and regularly ‘burn out’ leading to an enormous staff turnover of 50,000 a month.

The mediation of commodities through markets, advertising, global hysteria, exoticism and status et alia dilutes the knowledge we have of the half-life existence of those whose hands produce them, as discussed in an article by Peter Jackson for Transactions(1999), and increases the distance between us and the production line. It is possible that though factory conditions have not got worse or changed recently, what has changed is the Chinese factory worker. Globalisation produces outcomes on all sides one of which is rising inequality. With its previously socialist framework China is experiencing the emergence of inequity; industrialisation and the economic boom potentially fuelling new aspirations and heightening expectations. 
Fulong Wu
(2003) writes in Area of the impact of this emerging inequality in Beijing through a case study of housing trends.

Reaction from Apple has been swift, and a raft of measures to increase wellbeing for the workers is planned including a reported 80% pay increase, indicative of previous low wages.  For my part the events at the Longhua plant are a stark reminder that though we in the ‘West’ increasingly manage to drive down the price of commodities; somewhere, someone is paying the price.

Joblessness, poverty and welfare

By Rosa Mas Giralt

In the last few days, the BBC has broadcast a reality TV programme entitled “Famous, Rich and Jobless”, in which Larry Lamb (EastEnders actor), Diarmuid Gavin (TV gardener), Meg Matthews (interior designer), and Emma Parker Bowles (former model) swapped their everyday lives for 8 days coping with joblessness and its consequences. In the first programme, the four volunteers were provided with accommodation in four areas of high unemployment in the UK, asked to survive on benefits and to try to find work. In the second part of the week, they were sent to live in four households hit by the effects of long-term unemployment to try to help to ease their situation. What was striking about this social experiment is how quickly one can become engulfed by the despairing situation of trying to make a living when all doors seem closed. It also brought to the fore how prejudices of “benefit cheats” condition our understanding of the complexity of the lives of those caught on a spiral of unemployment and financial difficulty which jeopardises their everyday survival and physical and emotional wellbeing. 

Yesterday, an opinion piece by Donald Hirsch in The Guardian also focused our attention on the social inequalities that still characterise the UK after more than a decade of Labour government. In response to this situation, a campaign for “a living wage” is advocating a level of pay which provides a sustainable standard of living for all workers, a level which should be considerably higher than the current £5.80 an hour minimum wage. Hirsh emphasises that the success of this campaign would mean the social recognition that all workers should be remunerated in a way which guarantees dignity and wellbeing.

All these issues also bring to the spotlight the current welfare system in the UK and its shortcomings. These include its inability to accommodate and work through the complex circumstances which keep people trapped in vulnerable situations of unemployment and often related poverty. In a recent article for Geography Compass, Paul Milbourne (2010) explores the contributions that, in the last few years, geography has made in researching and understanding poverty and welfare in western countries (mainly the UK and the US). He highlights the considerable achievements of the discipline and calls for “a ‘welfare turn’ within human geography, (…) [which] is required if geographers are to do justice to the cultural, political, economic and social dimensions of poverty and welfare” (2010: 168). This turn would allow a wider recognition of the contributions that geography can make in public debates on poverty and welfare and related policy agendas.

 Watch Episode 1 of “Famous, Rich and Jobless” on the BBC iPlayer

 Watch Episode 2 of “Famous, Rich and Jobless” on the BBC iPlayer

 Read “A wage to live in dignity” by Donald Hirsh on The Guardian website

 Read Paul Milbourne (2010) “The Geographies of poverty and welfare”. Geography Compass. 4(2): 158-171

Listening to children’s voices and respecting their rights

Rusty_fence

By Rosa Mas Giralt

In last Sunday’s Observer, Henry Porter commented on the lack of public attention given to the fact that about 2,000 asylum seeking children a year are locked up with their parents in detention centres in the UK. The treatment of these children by the UK authorities is in breach of their rights and seriously jeopardizes their wellbeing, a fact which has long been denounced by children’s rights groups.

In a forthcoming article for Area, Heaven Crawley explores a different aspect of this issue through the experiences of unaccompanied children seeking asylum as they go through the application process and interview to establish whether their asylum claim will be approved. She concludes that “[i]ndividual children are treated with contempt and a lack of basic care when they present their claims for protection. And what they have to say about their experiences is often not listened to, let alone heard or understood” (Crawley, 2009: 6).

Children’s geographies scholars and those from other disciplines have long argued that young people must be recognized as independent individuals with their own agency. The asylum system in the UK is failing to do this by not respecting children’s rights and disregarding their voices.

60% world Read full Henry Porter’s Comment article in The Observer and comments from members of the public

60% world Read Heaven Crawley (2009) “‘No one gives you a chance to say what you are thinking’: finding space for children’s agency in the UK asylum system”. Area. Early View.