Visions of a Wellbeing Economy

The Contribution of Psychology to Wellbeing Economics

Published on March 29, 2023

By Mick Cooper, Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton (member of WEAll)

Agh… therapy. Who needs it? Lying on a couch and talking about your navel and your mother. Isn’t wellbeing economics about looking outwards, improving the world, creating a safer, more thriving, and more equitable planet?

Yes, absolutely, but in my recent book Psychology at the Heart of Social Change: Developing a Progressive Vision for Society (Policy Press, 2023), I’ve argued that therapy and its parent discipline psychology have the potential to play an invaluable role in helping to achieve the kind of goals that WEAll is passionate about. Why?

Well, first, WEAll is about creating a world in which everyone has the capacity to thrive: where human (and planetary) needs are put at the centre of policies rather than economic growth. But what does it actually mean to thrive, and what is it that human beings really need and want? It’s the kind of question that seems simple enough when you first think about it, but gets more and more complex the deeper you look. Is human wellbeing, for instance, just about being happy, or is challenge (and even misery) part of a fully-functioning life? And what about relatedness? Yes, human beings do seem to need that very much, but how does that balance off against a need for freedom and autonomy? Is one more important than the other, or do people thrive most when they try to find a balance of the two? These are tricky, complex questions, and it’s an area where therapists work day, in day out, to try and understand the deepest levels of human needs and wants. It’s also an area where there is a phenomenal amount of psychological research. This doesn’t in way discount the work that economists, sociologists, and other thinkers, policy-makers, and activists are doing at the forefront of creating wellbeing economies, but it does suggest we should be linking up with psychologists to plan and develop societies in which people can thrive as fully as possible. 

Second, there’s some great knowledge and practices in the therapy field about how to challenge someone very fundamentally while also engaging with them with dignity and respect. Supposing a client comes in, for instance, and talks about shouting at her wife. As a therapist, I might challenge the client about how she behaved—for instance, ‘That sounds like it could have really hurt your partner’—while also conveying to her that I know she didn’t do it out of some innate ‘badness’ or evil. There was a reason for it (for instance, perhaps the client felt deeply hurt by her wife), and the therapeutic process is often about finding this out and then finding more productive ways that the client can respond—for both themselves and for others. Why should anyone in WEAll care about this? Because WEAll is a movement that strives to make fundamental challenges to the way society is run without wanting to demonize or demean those who see things in different ways. Its about creating a society characterised by dignified, dignifying, and compassionate ways of relating to others, and that’s something therapists have been developing for years. A great example here is nonviolent communication, developed by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, which teaches people to address conflict through expressing what they need and want, rather than through what the other person is getting wrong.

Third, and following on from this, why are people so addicted to GDP: What is it that makes people and societies want to focus so intensely on economic growth and earning? We can say it’s just down to stupidity, naivety, and greed, but that’s not the best standpoint from which to establish dignifying relationships with others. And if those aren’t actually the factors driving this addiction to growth, then we’re not going to be tackling the problem at its real roots. Psychology, then, can help us get inside of the mind of growth-addiction: to understand why people get so caught up in it and why it becomes so pervasive over our planet. Why does Elon Musk, for instance, need to have 180 billion dollars when he already had 100, or even 1? It’s easy to say, ‘Because he’s a selfish narcissist’; much harder to ask the question, ‘If I was Elon Musk, why would I be making the choices that he is?’ Maybe (hopefully) we wouldn’t, but asking questions like that from a psychological, empathic standpoint may give us much deeper insights into the drives (and, no doubt, insecurities and vulnerabilities) here, and ultimately more knowledge from which to find constructive ways of addressing such problems. 

Finally, and perhaps most directly, psychology has some very well-evidenced ways to enhance wellbeing overall. This isn’t about throwing everyone on a couch—although there is good evidence that around two-thirds of people reliably improve as a result of psychological therapies. Perhaps two of the most important therapy-inspired strategies for improving wellbeing are ‘positive parenting’ and ‘social and emotional learning’ in schools, both of which are very well backed-up by empirical evidence. These practices are great because, by helping children and young people to improve their wellbeing, they provide the foundations for lasting wellbeing throughout life. As I argue in my book, for any wellbeing-oriented government, I think these two practices should be right at the top of a policy agenda: to teach parents and carers to look after their kids with love (and boundaries), and to teach kids how they can manage their emotions and get on with others. What better way of creating secure, thriving communities for all—for now and for the future. 

Therapy doesn’t have all the answers, and there’s no doubt that there’s much we need to learn from many other disciplines and communities. But as one strand in a much larger movement, it can play a valuable role in helping us think about what wellbeing really means, how we can get there, and also what can get in the way. If you’re interested, we’ve recently set up a Therapy and Social Change (TaSC) Network (a member organisation of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance), and you can join us for monthly seminars or sign up to our email discussion group. We’ve even got WEAll’s very own Kate Petriw coming to talk to our network on the 29th September (2023), to help introduce WEAll policy and practices to the therapeutic field.

Also check out my YouTube video which goes into further detail below:

Social change and psychology

Want to join
the discussion?
Let us know what
you would like
to write about!