Graham opened the discussion by describing the necessity of 'wellbeing metrics' to understand life satisfaction and individual choice, especially when individuals are confronted with institutional/macro arrangements intractable to personal actions (like inequality) and/or when their behaviours are driven by imposed norms or self-control problems.

She went on to illustrate her research on inequality of opportunities and aspirations in the US, drawing a comparison with Latin American countries and between American ethnic and income groups, and its impacts on individual health, attitudes, wellbeing, and even belief in the American dream.

Following her presentation, O’Donnell compared the findings with the situation in the UK, linking the voting patterns in the UK’s EU Referendum and the US presidential election. He further explored the possibilities of using wellbeing metrics to help government build up a more comprehensive policy agenda and enhance people’s living standards.

Graham highlighted some of the key findings and structural trends behind the phenomenon:

  • Individuals with higher levels of wellbeing have better future outcomes, due to intrinsic motivation and/or capacity to have longer time horizons;
  • The US is split between wealthy and poor with corresponding divergent wellbeing: while the former enjoy high levels of life satisfaction and the ability to plan for/invest in the future, the poor are beset by low life satisfaction and high levels of stress and other negative markers. In particular, poor-whites struggle with desperation and deteriorating health in contrast with optimism among blacks and Hispanics;
  • People living in cities and other racially diverse places are more hopeful and more likely to have lower mortality rates; and
  • Regular tracking of wellbeing trends could prevent being caught off guard with a rise in mortality; metrics could serve as leading indicator for policy-making.

About the Speakers

Carol Graham is the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland. She is also a current Legatum Fellow, and has previously been a Vice President at Brookings and a Special Advisor to the Vice President of the Inter-American Development Bank. Graham is the author of numerous books—most recently The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being (Brookings) and Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires (Oxford)—and has published articles in a range of journals including the World Bank Research Observer, Health Affairs, the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Health Economics, and the Journal of Socio-Economics. Her work has been reviewed in Science, The New Yorker, and the New York Times, among others, and she received the 2014 Distinguished Research Fellow award for substantial contribution from the International Society of Quality of Life Studies. She has an A.B. from Princeton, an MA from Johns Hopkins, a PhD from Oxford University. Carol is an adviser to the Legatum Prosperity Index™.

Gus O’Donnell has been Non-Executive Chairman of Frontier (Europe) since October 2013. After joining the Treasury in 1979, Gus held various positions at the British Embassy in Washington, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. From 2002-05, he was Permanent Secretary at the Treasury and in 2005 became Cabinet Secretary on the retirement of Lord Turnbull. He held this position until 2011, serving three Prime Ministers. Gus studied Economics at the University of Warwick, and gained an MPhil in Economics from Nuffield College, Oxford and went on to lecture in economics at the University of Glasgow. Gues joined Frontier as Senior Advisor in 2012 and became Chairman in 2013. In his role at Frontier, Gus draws on his extensive experience to provide strategic advice on all aspects of Frontier’s work. From 2013-14, Gus chaired the Legatum Institute's Commission on Wellbeing which produced the report, Wellbeing and Policy.