Seeking wellbeing in development: a challenge to sustainability or an
Tadhg O’ Mahonya,1*
aFinland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku, Åkerlundinkatu 2, FI-33100 Tampere,
As critiques of economic growth as the ends of development are widely accepted, the concept of
multidimensional wellbeing and sustainability are emergent development priorities. There is no
universal definition of wellbeing with little exchange across the disciplines. Discussions are synthesised
from the micro individual focus to the more macro development approaches. Commonalities support
multidimensional wellbeing, the importance of the social and relational as contextual factors and
balance as both psychological and development definition. ‘Integrated wellbeing pathways’ unify
individual wellbeing and establish the importance of balancing life domains. Sustainability exhibits
common challenges with those in individual wellbeing and ‘balancing’ development establishes
potential synergies. There are conceptual and ethical issues in; defining wellbeing while facilitating
freedom, establishing ‘sustainable’ patterns of development and adopting a wellbeing approach whilst
there are co-existing social inequalities and poverty. Nevertheless, a sustainable wellbeing approach
does not preclude these issues, the wellbeing of the individual is theoretically and practically linked to
that of society and sustainability, and a holistic approach may be useful as a framework for thinking.
The concept of ‘sustainable wellbeing pathways’ is articulated to encompass the individual level, linked
1*Corresponding author. Tel.: +358 2 333 9833 Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
to a systemic perspective and offering opportunities to enhance human wellbeing and sustainability in
Keywords: wellbeing, happiness, development, sustainability, capabilities, needs.
“We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.”
1. Introduction and background
Defining the implications of human wellbeing for sustainable development, and in turn sustainable
development for wellbeing, are significant conceptual challenges to both discourses. Basic needs
theory, in favour in the 1970’s, was replaced in development by a focus on economic growth in the
1980’s (Roberts et al., 2015). From the 1990’s, this prime focus on economic growth began to dissipate,
and various critiques of GDP as a measure of welfare and social progress have since burgeoned and
become widely accepted in recent decades (Stiglitz et al., 2009). The phenomenon of economic growth
is now widely viewed as a means and not an ends of development (Anand and Sen, 2000) and
multidimensional wellbeing and sustainability have consequently emerged as development priorities
(Stiglitz et al., 2009). McGregor et al. (2012) discuss how human wellbeing has gained prominence in
various countries, in Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness framework, in the ‘Buen Vivir’ and ‘Vivir
Bien’ programmes of Latin America, and in policy efforts in Thailand, Japan, the UK, Canada and
Australia. However, they also suggest that to move beyond its current rhetorical role to the development
mainstream requires the application of wellbeing as a conceptual framework that yields practical
answers to real problems.
The modern concept of ‘wellbeing’ is common to anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology,
and other social sciences (Fleurbaey et al., 2014). Rojas (2007) suggests that as wellbeing is a complex
phenomenon, it should be understood broadly across the domains of life as per Easterlin (2006).
Ramalingham and Jones (2008) state that academically this requires a transdisciplinary or at least
interdisciplinary lens. While issues of wellbeing measurement have often been to the fore, Waterman
(2008) advises that a purely empirically-driven approach ignores the complexities of the wellbeing
construct. Economics and psychology have dominated the understanding of wellbeing but the term is
not universally defined. Huppert’s ‘science of wellbeing’ covers physiological, psychological, cultural,
social and economic determinants (Huppert et al., 2005), as a holistic approach that encompasses the
different domains of life. There are a multiplicity of theories that may contribute to bringing further
clarity (McGillivray, 2007), and Huppert (2014) has flagged the difficulty that this complexity
inevitably entails. Wellbeing science tends to refer to a more broad concept than ‘happiness,’
incorporating both hedonia2 and Eudaimonia3 as distinct concepts that are mutually supportive (Huta
and Ryan, 2010; Kashdan et al., 2008). The two philosophical traditions of hedonia and Eudaimonia
have served as the backbone for the new science of wellbeing (Ryan and Deci, 2001). However,
Kashdan et al. (2008) argue that while the distinction between hedonia and Eudaimonia arises in
philosophy it doesn’t transfer well to science, the boundaries are overlapping and there is no universal
definition of eudaimonic wellbeing. While they are distinct and contribute to wellbeing in unique ways
they are also highly related (Huta and Ryan, 2010). Empirical results from numerous studies reviewed
by Kashdan et al. (2008), show that in general eudaimonia is not simply linked to a qualitatively
different kind of happiness but quantitatively higher levels of hedonic wellbeing. Henderson et al.
(2013) argue that increasing both hedonistic and eudaimonic behaviors may be effective in increasing
wellbeing and reducing psychological distress.
2 Linked to the Benthamite tradition of desiring pleasure and avoiding pain, and classically to Epicurus. The
hedonic perspective suggests that maximising pleasure and avoiding pain is the pathway to happiness
(Henderson and Knight, 2012).
3 Kashdan et al. (2008) describe eudaimonia as having associations with goals, particularly those related to
intimacy rather than power, and also associations such as flow, altruism and helping and autonomy, classically
related to an Aristotelian view. Henderson and Knight (2012) describe eudaimonia as directed towards living a
life of virtue, actualising one’s inherent potentials, personal growth and meaning
While wellbeing is often understood at the individual level, there are macro drivers that cause or obstruct
wellbeing. These could be variously described as objective determinants, external factors, development
causes, structural issues or systemic influences. There is also a feedback relationship, as the aggregated
sum of how wellbeing is sought has significant implications for the wellbeing of others, for the
environment and for future generations. Contemporary inquiry in development, wellbeing and
happiness has begun to more strongly recognise the challenge of these sustainability consequences
(Anand and Sen, 2000; Stiglitz et al., 2009; McGregor et al., 2012; Layard et al., 2012), but the
opportunities this presents have not been greatly explored (Jackson, 2005; Kasser, 2009; Kjell, 2011;
Helne and Hirvallami, 2015; Cloutier and Pfeiffer, 2015, Roberts et al., 2015).
It is likely infeasible to comprehensively detail all of the voluminous theories involved in wellbeing
(McGillivray (2007). Wellbeing, happiness and what is ‘the good life’ are profoundly social
conceptions that require definition in different social, cultural and individual circumstances. This ethical
principle of avoiding paternalism, or non-consensual definitions, also create challenges in
understanding human wellbeing. Copestake (2008) proposes in his discussion of wellbeing in
international development, that there are occasions when a narrow perspective is necessary, but that
such a decision can only be made within a wider framework of understanding wellbeing. McGregor et
al. (2012) referred to their approach to understanding wellbeing in development, as reviewing and
analysing, that while avoiding a ‘straitjacket’ it could assist as a diagnostic tool. Stiglitz et al. (2009)
referred to their definition of the dimensions of human wellbeing as ‘opening a discussion rather than
closing it’ to hint at issues that require more comprehensive research efforts. Alkire (2002) argued that
through looking at the co-existing components of wellbeing we come upon an important practical and
theoretical tool, as a rough set or list of dimensions. Consequently, the aim of this article is not to review
all of the philosophies, theories and concepts that are relevant to the foundations of wellbeing, or to
arrive at a universal or definitive statement on what constitutes wellbeing, it by no means exhausts the
subject. The aim is to review a set of contemporary advances across various disciplines that may aid a
discussion of the place of wellbeing in development. This synthesis could assist in identifying synergies
in analysis and for policymaking, from the micro to the inter-related macro level. It is a discursive
exercise, rather than any attempt at a systematised conclusion. The paper reviews different prominent
approaches relevant to wellbeing, their discipline and genesis, and potential implications for seeking
wellbeing in development and sustainability. It notes commonalities that are emerging across various
disciplines, and in the evolving field of the study of ‘wellbeing,’ or ‘well-being,’ when broadly
construed. This article intends to target a mixed audience; it has particular relevance to those with an
interest in sustainable development but also those encompassing happiness, wellbeing and general
After the introduction, the article reviews discussions in the expanding field of happiness studies. This
is followed by related contributions at the micro level, from the fields of psychological wellbeing and
physical health and wellness. Wellbeing research and integrated wellbeing pathways are then discussed
as a unified conception. The article then moves to more macro approaches, discussing Sen’s capability
approach as the leading alternative approach to human development, and contributions from prior
theories of needs as a pertinent contrast. As something of a watershed in understanding human
wellbeing and development, including the priority on sustainability, a discussion follows of the Stiglitz-
Sen-Fitoussi approach to characterising multidimensional wellbeing (Stiglitz et al., 2009). This is then
expanded through consideration of the general implications of sustainable development, as both
challenge and opportunity, to round the review. The discussion section seeks to synthesise the
implications of the preceding discourse, followed by concluding remarks.
2. Happiness studies
The field of happiness studies has led to a re-direction of analysis and policy towards analysing and
understanding what tends to be a more broad concept of ‘wellbeing’ and what makes for better lives
(Helliwell et al., 2012). Happiness is an ambiguous concept associated with the field of positive
psychology and is often used as a catchword for subjective wellbeing (SWB) (Fleurbaye et al., 2014).
Diener and Seligman (2004) describe how happiness itself can measure pleasure, life satisfaction,
positive emotions, a meaningful life or a feeling of contentment among other concepts. Happiness is
evaluated at the aggregate population or economy-wide level using microeconomic techniques from
two major branches; objective wellbeing and the more recent pursuit of SWB. Frequently tied to issues
of measurement, and the different philosophical and theoretical debates that underpin the concept, a
seminal contribution was made by Diener through the model of SWB (Diener, 1984). Though it is still
accompanied by disagreement on its definition and theoretical basis according to Linton et al., (2016),
it has climbed up the ladder of priority in both research and public policy.
In 2011, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 65/309 inviting countries to measure peoples’
happiness, and to use this to guide public policy. The first UN High Level Meeting on "Happiness and
Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm," was held in 2012 underpinned by the World
Happiness Report of Helliwell et al. (2012). Including global survey data on the happiness of citizens
it encompassed expert input from psychologists, economists, pollsters, sociologists. Reflecting on the
results of SWB studies (of daily personal emotions) and life satisfaction studies (as individual’s overall
evaluation of life). Happiness was characterised as a subjective experience, but one that can be
objectively measured and analysed, it can be related not only to individual characteristics and objective
circumstances but those of the wider societal context and it is amenable to influence by public policy.
Within the Report, Layard et al. (2012) look at the more external factors (income, work, community,
governance, values and religion) and the more internal factors (mental health, physical health, family,
education, gender and age). They conclude from synthesising 30 years of happiness research that while
income is important, particularly for those experiencing poverty, it has limitations in its contribution to
average global wellbeing. They assert that the evidence is now overwhelming that after a certain point,
the gains from further income are very small in the now familiar concept of the ‘diminishing marginal
utility of income.’ The results of both life satisfaction and SWB, show a greater contribution of other
determinants in determining average global wellbeing through; social support, health, freedom and the
place of corruption. From a development perspective, the authors draw a crucial link between individual
wellbeing and the wellbeing of overall society and future environmental and social sustainability. Sachs
(2016) examines the relationship between economic freedom4 ‘libertarianism,’ wealth generation5
‘consumerism’ and sustainable development6 ‘holism,’ against global happiness SWB data for 119
countries. Sachs concludes that it is sustainable development that is statistically significant in
determining happiness. These macro perspectives are important in furthering the pursuit of wellbeing
beyond factors that can be characterised as internal to the individual.
3. Psychological wellbeing
While the economic literature focusses on the importance of objective circumstances, the importance
of individual psychology and mental health is prioritised in psychology. The literature on individual
psychology, and the related ‘science of well-being’ in applied psychology, have sought to move from
an approach to mental health that is pathological, dealing with mental health problems, to deal with
‘positive mental health’ as described by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000). Such positive mental
health includes the concept of ‘flourishing’7 (Huppert, 2009), where wellbeing is defined as more than
the absence of disorder. The theoretically derived dimensions of positive psychological health include;
Self-acceptance, Positive relations with others, Autonomy, Environmental mastery, Purpose in life, and
Personal growth (Ryff, 1989), This seminal work of Ryff on her scales of Psychological Well-Being is
the most widely used measure of positive psychological functioning. Van Dierendonck (2008) attributes
its theoretical base to an extensive literature review including among its antecedents, Maslow’s theories
4 10 sub-indexes that measure the liberty of individuals to use their labor or finances without undue
restraint and government interference in the ‘Index of Economic Freedom’.
5 114 indicators that capture concepts that matter for productivity, as combined in the ‘Global Competitiveness
6 17 sub-indexes of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals combined in the ‘SDG Index.’ This is a
multidimensional focus on a triple bottom line of; economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental
7 Flourishing can be defined as; fulfilment, purpose, meaning, indeed happiness (Horwitz, 2002), or by the
influential work of Keyes (2002) as incorporating the main components; emotional, psychological and social
of needs and personal growth (Maslow, 1968), and philosophical attempts to define the ‘good life’
Keyes (1998) went a step further by explaining that while psychological wellbeing represents the
necessary private and personal criteria, social well-being epitomises the more public and social. Within
this, the social dimensions consist of social coherence, social actualisation, social integration, social
acceptance and social inclusion. Individuals can be described as functioning well when they see society
as meaningful and understandable, society as possessing the potential for growth, when they feel they
belong to and are accepted by their communities, when they accept most parts of society and see
themselves as contributing to society. Describing individual wellbeing in this manner forms an intrinsic
link with the wellbeing of society, and crosses with Adler and Seligman’s concept of personal, societal
and institutional ‘flourishing’ (Adler and Seligman, 2016). It also overlaps with Layard et al. and their
conclusions on the importance of society to individual happiness, opening up a new macro dimension
to support mental health and psychological wellbeing at the individual level. Huppert (2009) outlined
that the approaches to improve psychological wellbeing must distinguish; (a) treating disorder when it
is present; (b) preventing disorder from occurring; and (c) enhancing wellbeing, but that a wellbeing
approach recognises that psychological wellbeing is also protective and preventative. Taking a systemic
development perspective on individual psychological wellbeing would therefore require not only the
psychological model of personal agency and ‘volition’ in wellbeing (Lyubomirksi et al., 2005), and
attention to the derived dimensions of individual mental health and sufficient support for mental health
services (Boyce et al., 2013), but the development of societies that are conducive and supportive both
to individual wellbeing and inter-related social wellbeing.
4. Physical health and wellness
At the individual level, the importance of physical health and wellness is well established in happiness
research. Psychological adaptation can occur to most changes in objective life conditions, including that
measured by SWB, with few exceptions such as physical pain and psychological problems (Kahneman
et al., 2003; Fleurbaye, 2009; Krueger and Stone, 2008). Nevertheless, models of physical health have
also began to undergo a shift. In 1999, Larson outlined different conceptualisations of health including;
the medical model pertaining to the absence of disease, the WHO model as a state of complete physical,
mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, and the wellness model
of progress toward higher functioning, energy, comfort, and integration of mind, body, and spirit
(Larson, 1999). In discerning the differences between these conceptualisations, Naci and Ionnadis
(2015) note that the medical model is concerned with ill-health rather than wellbeing, and that most
medical research focusses on disease rather than health. They argue that little is known about the causes
of ‘wellness’ as most medical research addresses the effectiveness of drug interventions. This is a
similar limiting condition to that previously noted in psychological wellbeing, where there is a focus on
ill-health rather than positive wellbeing. Naci and Ionnadis attempt to define an agenda for wellness
research which responds to gaps in knowledge by defining wellness as; ‘…diverse and interconnected
dimensions of physical, mental, and social well-being that extend beyond the traditional definition of
health.’ It includes choices and activities that facilitate the achievement of physical vitality, mental
alacrity, social satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and personal fulfillment. Healthy people may
differ vastly in terms of their wellness; whether their life is filled with creativity, altruism, friendship,
and physical and intellectual achievement8. Complementing this holistic approach to physical health, a
review of self-reporting wellbeing measures by Linton et al. (2016), outlined 99 different measures of
wellbeing and 196 dimensions within them. Linton et al. cluster the dimensions in six key thematic
domains: mental well-being, social wellbeing, physical well-being, spiritual well-being, activities and
functioning, and personal circumstances, and also add the ‘global’ wellbeing measures such as those
described by life satisfaction. This review points to the lack of clarity on the theories influencing the
8 Naci and Ionnadis (2015) advocate the importance of including ‘citizen scientists’ as networks of non-
scientists that can help identify appropriate scientific questions and conduct studies, in a parallel to the
principle of freedom applied in development.
design of tools but identify Diener’s model of SWB (Diener, 1984), the WHO model of wellbeing
(WHO, 1946) as the most referenced theories, with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943); Sen’s
capability approach (1985), and Ryff’s psychological well-being (1989) also noted. These diverse and
interconnected dimensions establish that physical wellbeing is not just the domain of public health
policy, as in the treatment and prevention of ill-health. Similar to positive mental health, development
can be conducive or obstructive to the wider dimensions of wellness, suggesting the relevance of a
development approach to wellbeing in addition to individual approaches.
5. Wellbeing research and wellbeing pathways
In describing advances in wellbeing research it is important to note recent contributions that seek to
holistically represent the micro level of individual wellbeing. A promising approach that balances the
different life domains is offered by the ‘wellbeing pathways’ (Henderson and Knight, 2012; Huta and
Ryan, 2010) and ‘full-life’ or ‘integrated pathways’ (Waterman, 1993; Seligman et al., 2004; Peterson
et al., 2005; Huppert and So, 2009), addressing difficulties previously noted in the separation of
‘hedonic’ and ‘eudaimonic’ living. The combinations of hedonia, eudaimonia and engagement
activities9 that lead to higher overall wellbeing; physically, psychologically, socially, and in terms of
areas related to the concept of flourishing such as growth and fulfillment, can be described as integrated
wellbeing pathways. Among the life domains, the social and relational feature prominently, and the
relatively overlooked dimension of harmony/balance, constitutes an important aspect of lay people’s
conceptions of happiness (Delle Fave et al., 2011). In defining wellbeing pathways10, Delle Fave et al.
(2011) outlined eleven different life domains; Work, Family, Standard of Living, Interpersonal
Relationships, Health, Personal Growth, Spirituality/Religion, Society issues, Community issues,
9 Engagement is equated with ‘flow,’ as a state characterised by intense absorption in one’s activities
10 In a study of seven different countries; Australia, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and South Africa.
Leisure, and Life in general. Henderson and Knight (2012) have recommended such a categorisation of
life domains for future wellbeing research. Interestingly, balance, family, health and interpersonal
relationships were ranked highest, overlapping to some degree with the conclusions from Layard et al.
on happiness studies. In a study of Eudaimonic and Hedonic Happiness Investigation (EHHI) of citizen
definitions of happiness across twelve nations11, results showed that inner harmony12 predominated
among psychological definitions, and family and social relationships among contextual definitions
(Delle Fave et al., 2016). Henderson and Knight (2012) suggest that achieving a balance between
different needs, commitments and aspirations is perhaps more important than ‘having more,’ and that
further research is necessary to more fully disentangle the wellbeing dimension of harmony and
balance13. This approach to wellbeing is based on a micro perspective of improving wellbeing, the
discussion now moves to more macro perspectives from development.
6. Human development and capabilities
The concept of human development as ends rather than means, emerged through increasing macro
development critiques of economic growth as a means to secure increases in wellbeing for a majority
of the population (Qizilbash, 1996). The capability approach of Sen (1985, 1992), is now the leading
alternative framework for thinking about human development, because it is possible to take into account
all of the relevant dimensions of life, in contrast to the ‘relatively narrow resourcist and hedonic
approaches’ (Fleurbaey, 2009). The capability approach is used across a broad range of disciplines,
most prominently in development thinking, welfare economics, social policy and political philosophy,
and for a wide variety of subjects related to people’s wellbeing, from individual wellbeing, to inequality
and poverty (Robeyns, 2003). It stands in contrast with philosophical approaches that concentrate on
11 Participants were 2799 adults (age range = 30–60, 50% women) living in urban areas of Argentina, Brazil,
Croatia, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, and United States.
12 Harmony, the most frequent subcategory within the psychological definitions of happiness, included the
components of inner peace, inner balance, contentment, and psychophysical well-being (Delle Fave et al.,
13 Delle Faveet al. (2016) discuss the importance of harmony and balance in happiness across all countries,
while noting that there are cultural and age related differences in the degree of identification of happiness
with high arousal positive affect (HAP: excitement, euphoria, enthusiasm) and with low arousal positive affect
(LAP: serenity, peacefulness, tranquility).
happiness or desire-fulfilment, and the theoretical and practical approaches that concentrate on income,
expenditures, consumption or basic needs fulfilment. The capability approach has the basic proposition
that we should evaluate development and progress on what people are effectively able to do and to be,
as ‘the expansion of the “capabilities” of people to lead the kind of lives they value – and have reason
to value’ (Sen, 1999), but it has been described as ‘more a paradigm than a well-defined theory’
Sen was not prescriptive on the list of capabilities with the aim of flexibility in application in diverse
social and cultural contexts, a deliberate strategy on Sen’s part to avoid paternalism and curtailing
freedom. To deliver on this framework, Martha Nussbaum (2005) developed a list of ten central human
capabilities that are argued as fundamental, universal entitlements to secure social justice: (1) life; (2)
bodily health; (3) bodily integrity; (4) senses, imagination and thought; (5) emotions; (6) practical
reason; (7) affiliation; (8) other species; (9) play; (10) and political and material control over one’s
environment. This list of capabilities has been criticised for not taking into account cultural norms and
the paternalistic rejection of local values (Clark, 2006). However, Gasper (2004) suggests that it should
not be viewed as a static list but as a hypothesis and starting point for discussion in society. As described
by Robeyns (2005), capability is not a panacea for research on development, poverty, justice, and social
policies, but an important framework for such analyses. As a framework for thinking it can be related
to the basic needs approach to poverty, but with the philosophy of freedom of individual choice at its
core. The key analytical distinction with the capability approach is that between the means and the ends,
where only the ends have intrinsic importance and the means such as economic growth are only
instrumental (Robeyns, 2003).
14 The capability approach involves two key terms of ‘functionings’ and ‘capability sets’ where functionings are
described as the doings or beings of an individual such as material consumption, health and level of education.
These can then de described by a functioning vector which an individual can choose to value (Sen, 1999). A
capability set is then the set of potential functioning vectors that an individual can obtain, where functionings
are achievements, and capabilities are opportunities.
The capability approach has expanded considerably, and been refined since its inception, with much
literature in support15. Clark (2006) outlines a number of areas for debate including; the philosophical
underpinnings of freedom, what we have individual reason to value, the place for human agency and
the tension between capability equality and expansion. Gasper (2002) suggests that the philosophical
approach to individual freedom as choice is problematic in how it is theorised. While it is useful it
requires an appropriate account of reason and the balance between the needs and freedom of the
individual with that of others. Gasper and van Staveren (2003) recognise the importance of freedom,
but argue that this must be anchored by justice and the value of caring for others, reflecting Sen’s earlier
work, including the contribution of democracy, respect and friendship. These are similar ideas to those
of Qizilbash (1996), that the actual full extent of freedom is limited by ‘negative freedom,’ where our
actions may impinge on certain rights which must not be violated. Gasper (2002) also states that where
human development is defined as greater capability without actual functioning, it risks becoming
absorbed into the hegemony of commodity production and consumerism, contrary to Sen’s original
intention to use the capability approach for critique. Alkire (2006) describes how the capability
approach actually emerged out of the basic needs approach, from a perceived requirement to give a
greater role for freedom, and also to move from a passive meeting of needs by commodities to more
empowered human beings. Gasper (2002) argues that where needs remain unrecognised or unfulfilled
this can lead to an illusion of limitless material desires, and therefore capability theory requires some
recourse to a theory of needs. Alkire (2006) argues for the continued usefulness of the articulation of
needs within the agency of the capability approach.
7. Needs theory
An extensive frame relevant is also evident in the theory of ‘human needs’ progressed from the 1940’s
by Abraham Maslow. Maslow (1943) proposed a theory of human motivation based around a hierarchy
15 The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission (Stiglitz et al., 2009), noted the seminal contribution of the capability
approach, its strong roots in social justice, a focus on human ends, freedom to decide what these are; a
rejection of the economic model of individuals acting to maximise self-interest heedless of relationships and
emotions; the complementarities between capabilities; and a recognition of human diversity drawing
attention to the role played by ethical principles in the design of the “good” society.
of needs characterised as; physiological, safety, love, esteem and self actualisation. Maslow’s later work
amended this theory, placing self-transcendence as a motivational step beyond self-actualisation
(Maslow, 1969). The theory has been influential in psychology and sociology, but has been criticised
for the ranking of needs and the hierarchy proposed. Max-Neef et al. (1989) made an important
contribution to needs discourse by defining needs as ontological and non-hierarchical. Under this
approach needs are finite, few and classifiable, and can be used to critique conventional economic
‘wants’. According to Max-Neef et al. these fundamental human needs include; subsistence, protection,
affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom, and occur under four
existential categories of; being, doing, having and interacting. The needs tradition has been useful in
explicating a holistic, inclusive and multidimensional conception and in questioning the role of
consumption. Notable recent empirical results have offered some support to a focus on needs. Kingdon
and Knight (2006) showed that education, health, employment and living conditions that can affect
physical functioning, as ‘basic needs,’ are statistically significant determinants of happiness. In a large
multi-country study, Tay and Diener (2011) examined the association of needs fulfillment and SWB,
finding that needs are indeed universal, with life evaluation most associated with fulfilling basic needs,
and positive feelings associated with social and respect needs.
The ‘basic needs approach’ to development, while in vogue in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, has fallen
out of favour and has largely been replaced by the capability approach (Reader, 2006). While the
capability approach focusses on freedom and expansion and growth, needs theory provides a useful
contrast as it places no obligation on expansion, offering a useful critique of the tension between
‘capability equality and expansion’ described by Clark (2006). Current global patterns of development
have been described as ‘skewed development’ by the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC; 2012). The IPCC’s fifth assessment report16 expands by concluding that the related
problems of global inequality and rising material consumption are driving climate change, and social
and environmental damages (Fleurbaey et al., 2014). This implies that there are current and pressing
16 Working Group III on ‘mitigation,’ or the policies and processes to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that
cause anthropogenic climate change.
limits to the expansion of capabilities, where they involve increasing material consumption through
'overconsumption' of the affluent at the expense of those in poverty.
The capabilities approach is clearly useful in the social dimension, as it can articulate a positive
empowerment of expansion of individual capabilites and functionings, but it appears problematic in
how it currently theorises environmental and related ethical dimensions of growth and development.
Alkire (2006) has discussed the usefulness of ‘Wiggins approach’ to basic needs within capabilities,
including ‘absolute’ and ‘entrenched’ needs. The existential categories of Max-Neef et al., (1989) in;
being, doing, having and interacting, also present nuances in understanding wellbeing dimensions and
the relationship to needs. Sustainability requires a balancing of development, and basic needs theory
may encourage consideration of this.
8. Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi on economic performance and social progress
In 2008, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, convened the “The Commission on the Measurement of
Economic Performance and Social Progress” (CMEPSP) often referred to as the ‘Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi
Commission,’ to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social
progress. A general conclusion of the report was the need to move from economic production to
measuring people’s well-being, and the central importance of sustainability was identified (Stiglitz et
al., 2009). The consensus report was written using expert input from economists and social scientists
with expertise from national accounting, the economics of climate change, social capital, happiness,
and health and mental well-being. An objective of the process was to build bridges between different
communities as producers and users of statistical information and across disciplines, with the audience
identified as; political leaders, policymakers, academia, civil society and the general public. The report
made an important distinction between an assessment of current wellbeing and an assessment of
sustainability, of whether wellbeing can last over time. Current wellbeing was attributed to economic
resources and non-economic aspects of peoples’ lives including; capabilities, subjective experience and
the natural environment in which they live. Sustaining levels of wellbeing over time was attributed to
the legacy of natural, physical, human, social stocks of capital passed to future generations. The
sustainability issue was acknowledged as complex, even more so than the already complicated issue of
measuring current wellbeing.
In Stiglitz et al. (2009), a multi-dimensional and interconnected definition of wellbeing was adopted,
and was something of a watershed in understanding wellbeing in development, with eight dimensions:
i. Material living standards (income, consumption and wealth); ii. Health; iii. Education; iv. Personal
activities including work v. Political voice and governance; vi. Social connections and relationships;
vii. Environment (present and future conditions); viii. Insecurity, of an economic as well as a physical
nature. This was followed by the release of the OECD ‘Better Life Initiative’ in 2011, in line with the
recommendations of Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi, measuring progress on eleven dimensions of current well-
being: health status; work and life balance; education and skills; social connections; civic engagement
and governance; environmental quality; personal security; income and wealth; jobs and earnings;
housing; and subjective well-being. The dimensions were described as universal, and relevant to all
societies across the world irrespective of their level of socio-economic and human development. Stiglitz
et al. argue that all of the dimensions shape people’s wellbeing and should be considered
simultaneously, and that many are missed by conventional income measures. They stated that changing
the emphasis does not mean dismissing GDP and production measures, but emphasising that wellbeing
is important because there is an increasing gap between the information contained in aggregate GDP
and what counts for people’s well-being.
9. The sustainability dimension
One of the challenges of an emphasis on capabilities, is not only the balance between individuals, but
the balance with future generations and environmental sustainability. Anand and Sen (2000) have
attempted to rectify this with the concept of ‘integrated sustainable human development,’ integrating
both the claims of the present and future generations through ethical universalism. It can then be defined
as development that promotes human capabilities in the present without compromising the capabilities
of the future. Anand and Sen take a hard line that it would be scandalous not to consider future
generations, and that a wealth based approach is theoretically flawed and significantly partisan.
Therefore in practice, any application of the capability approach requires explicit consideration of the
environment in which future generations will pursue their capabilities. However, in their view,
substitutability of resources implies that the obligation of sustainable development is to leave behind a
generalised capacity to produce wellbeing, and not leave the environment as it is found in every detail.
In defining what this ‘generalised capacity’ might be, there are many advances in sustainability science
that are prescient. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment has identified 15 of 24 ecosystem services
that function as humanity’s life support system that are now in serious decline (MEA, 2005) while
studies such as Steffen et al. (2015) have identified four of nine planetary boundaries that have crossed
what is described as the ‘safe operating space.’ Meanwhile the risks from climate change to undo
development progress are now well known. If we significantly undermine the capacity of the
environment to support human life by surpassing ecological thresholds and planetary boundaries, then
substitutability cannot be perfect. Sustainability science asserts that all forms of natural capital are not
perfectly substitutable and some must be protected as they underpin human life (EEA, 2015:51), and
this also entails ethical considerations17. Environmental integrity is then not something that can be
traded and replaced. The sustainability literature provides a useful addition to these discussions in the
emerging basic principles of sustainable development (Halsnæs et al., 2007), characterised as; the
welfare of future generations, the maintenance of essential biophysical life support systems, more
universal participation in development processes and decisionmaking, and the achievement of an
acceptable standard of human wellbeing.
Peeters et al. (2015) suggest that it may be necessary in some way to constrain peoples’ combinations
of functions to reconcile capabilities with sustainability. In contrast to this view of the challenges, some
have theorised on the opportunities for development win-wins, by first recognising the intrinsic links
17 There is an important ethical dimension to this debate as a human-centred or ‘anthropocentric’ view of
development only requires preservation of environmental integrity for its services to humans. A nature-
centred or ‘ecocentric’ view of development would require even stronger protections for the value of the
environment and nature in and of itself.
between human development and sustainable development. The concept of sustainable development
was famously defined by the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) as; “…development that meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This tension between sustainability and development (Jabareen, 2006) has been followed by an
evolution of the concept of sustainable development going beyond needs and environmental
preservation, to a balance of the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.
Constantini and Monni (2008) argue that sustainable development can play an active role in reducing
poverty, achieving higher living standards and increasing human development levels. As early
ideological and perspectivist battle lines between development needs and environmental protection
have to some extent dissipated, much of the focus has moved to synergies and co-benefits among the
different processes and policies for development. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs) of 2015 can be seen to embody some of this integrated thinking. Informed by Ban Ki Moon’s
assertion that “there can be no Plan B, because there is no Planet B” the 17 goals include; ending
poverty, good health and wellbeing, responsible consumption and production, climate action and
There is an opportunity to enhance human wellbeing and indeed capabilities through reviewing the
focus of development, with potential opportunities to renew development efforts that advance both of
these interdependent goals in tandem (Jackson and Marks, 1999). Hellne and Hirvallami (2015) defend
a relational approach of wellbeing to sustainability, as an enriched understanding of wellbeing beyond
economic terms, towards harmony with ecosystem wellbeing. Cloutier and Pfeiffer (2015) argue that
happiness is commonly thought of as an individual characteristic for which each person is solely
responsible, but that it is also a community characteristic, influenced by factors external to the
individual, which can be harnessed to improve opportunities for happiness through sustainability.
Stiglitz et al. (2009), and the OECD Better Life Initiative, focus the attention of measurement on the
broader natural, economic, human and social systems that ‘embed and sustain individual well-being
Operationalising this holistic conception is a new challenge with evident opportunities to enhance
human wellbeing and sustainability requiring a holistic lens. A seminal contribution was described by
Jackson (2005) in the idea of ´double dividend´ to reduce environmental pressures and improve
wellbeing simultaneously. Deflecting from the more damaging and less beneficial forms of
consumption that are driving environmental damages, could be assisted by facilitating greater balance
with the other dimensions of wellbeing. The approach of balanced wellbeing pathways outlined earlier
could be most useful in this regard. Acknowledging a multidimensional view of wellbeing could lead
to a reconsideration of happiness and wellbeing, and the priority and balance between different life
domains that it currently entails.
10. Discussion and implications
Wellbeing tends to be defined more broadly than happiness, as happiness is not the only goal of good
and valued lives (Huta and Ryan, 2010). The transdisciplinary concept of ‘wellbeing’ that is emerging
from various disciplines is multi-dimensional, and is an issue of real substance in development. In
happiness studies, Kashwas et al. (2008) have discussed the issue of ‘bracket creep,’ suggesting that
there are too many caveats with happiness. But happiness and the related concepts such as multi-
dimensional wellbeing and capability are by definition complex and caveated and defined differently
in diverse circumstances. Earlier theories such as Maslow (1943), Max-Neef et al. (1989) and more
contemporary approaches such as Sen (1985, 1992) and Nussbaum (2005) have been useful in arriving
at a multidimensional conception of human wellbeing. Multidimensional wellbeing is now supported
not only by an ancient heritage of philosophical discourse (Varelius, 2013), and a variety of capability,
needs, happiness, quality of life, social progress, psychology and physical wellness approaches as
discussed, but by contemporary conceptual discussion (McGillivray, 2007; Alkire 2002) empirical
results (Tay and Diener, 2011; Layard et al., 2012; Sachs, 2016), expert panels (Stigltiz et al., 2009),
citizen deliberation and participation (Delle Fave et al., 2011; Delle Fave et al., 2016) and the new
science of wellbeing (Huppert, 2005).
As is seen in Table 1, more micro and individual approaches to happiness and wellbeing such as Layard
et al., (2012) on happiness measurement, Ryff (1989) on psychological wellbeing, Linton et al. (2016)
on physical health wellbeing measurement and Delle Fave et al., (2011) on individual wellbeing
pathways, can be related to the dimensions identified in more macro approaches such as; Nussbaum
(2005) on central capabilties, Max-Neef et al. (1989) on needs and Stiglitz et al. (2009) on measurement
and social progress. A common theme is to move beyond basic needs or indeed pathology in physical
ill-health (Naci and Ionnadis, 2015) and psychological ill-health (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000;
Huppert, 2009; Horwitz, 2002; Keyes, 2002), towards expansion of capabilities (Sen, 1999) and
achievement of greater wellbeing among the wider dimensions and domains of life.
Both the development and wellbeing approaches tend to concur that there are objective and subjective
determinants and that these can be complimentary. While recognising the ethical importance of
autonomy and cultural diversity in definition across individuals and cultures, as oft repeated by thinkers
such as Sen, rather than any pretence of universal declaration, there appears to be value in understanding
these commonalities to enable further discussion. Common to the wellbeing approaches is to recognise
the social context in which wellbeing is experienced and the contribution of social and relational factors.
Social and relational factors are repeatedly found to be crucial to individual wellbeing (Tay and Diener,
2011; Huppert, 2009; Naci and Ioannidis, 2015; Keyes 2002) and societal wellbeing (Helliwell and
Putnam, 2004; Bartolini, 2014; Bartolini and Sarracino, 2011, Delle Fave et al., 2011; Delle Fave et al.,
2016). This conclusion is also consistent with the results of studies in behavioral economics,
neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as humans are now conceived of as profoundly prosocial
(Richardson et al., 2016). The importance of social wellbeing both in terms of personal relationships
and indeed the wellbeing of wider society has been highlighted by Keyes (1998) in psychological
wellbeing and McGregor et al. (2012) in wellbeing and development. In addition to the ethical concerns
of addressing inequality and poverty, as alluded to repeatedly by Sen (Anand and Sen, 2000), there is
also a pragmatic individual justification. Inequality is known to markedly negatively affect individual
subjective wellbeing measures (Fleurbaye et al., 2014), highlighting the interrelationships between
individual and societal wellbeing and the importance of social justice. This could be related to the
principles of sustainable development, and Denuelin and McGregor’s idea of not just ‘living well’
individually as encouraged by the capability approach, but ‘living well together,’ (Denuelin and
The more micro and individual approaches to wellbeing tend to leave environmental sustainability out
of the discussion. While Stiglitz et al. (2009), Nussbaum (2005) Hellne and Hirvallami, (2015); Kjell,
(2011) Roberts et al. (2015) have noted the importance of the ‘sustainability,’ ‘environment,’ ‘other
species,’ ‘ecosystems,’ and ‘nature,’ applied wellbeing research has tended not to include such
categories. Kjell (2011) argues that sustainability research as yet poorly articulates core concepts of
human ‘needs’ and ‘wellbeing,’ but also that wellbeing research is decontextualised, with both agendas
suffering. Through interdependencies individual wellbeing both impacts, and is impacted upon by the
society and the environment in which it is situated. Both research agendas encompass common
challenges such as over-consumption and its impacts on human health (WHO, 2009), wellbeing
(Easterly, 1999; Dumludag, 2015; Zhang and Zhiong, 2015; Noll and Weick, 2015; Gokdemir, 2015)
and society and the environment (Fleurbaey et al., 2014)19. Gruber et al. (2011) highlighted in the case
of happiness, and indeed more specifically in the case of food, it is possible to have too much, to
experience it at the wrong time, to pursue it in the wrong ways, and to experience the wrong type.
Balancing the domains of life in general, including those related to consumption and economic
wellbeing, are important in achieving wellbeing pathways at the individual level (Sirgy and Wu, 2009,
Delle Fave et al., 2011; Delle Fave et al., 2016; Henderson and Knight, 2012). As ‘balance’ and not
necessarily ‘growth’ or ‘more’ is a prominent consideration in a wellbeing pathways approach, it
dovetails with the need for balanced development and sustainability. The wellbeing of the individual
can therefore be theoretically and practically linked to the development of wellbeing in society and
environmental sustainability. This forms a potentially useful synergy between both wellbeing and
18 This social conception of wellbeing includes social structures and institutions which enable people to pursue
individual freedoms in relation to others.
19 Fleurbaey et al. (2014) also note that under-consumption of those in poverty is not only a parallel challenge,
but is further entrenched by the inequality of the over-consumption of the more affluent.
development research and policy, through ‘sustainable wellbeing pathways’. ‘Sustainable wellbeing
pathways’ could then be described as a balancing of life domains that promote individual wellbeing,
and sustainable development20 in balance with the wellbeing of others and the environment in parallel21.
This is in line with the integrated systemic thinking that is embodied in the concept of ‘sustainable
development pathways’ that has emerged in climate change mitigation literature in recent years
(Sathaye et al., 2007). Both of these approaches appear conceptually amenable to integration in that
they could be used to address the place of micro-level individual wellbeing in development and macro-
level development in support of wellbeing.
Where capability expansion involves such wellbeing pathway concepts as; balance, inner harmony,
personal growth, self-actualisation and prosociality at the individual level, it could be made more
consistent with protecting and developing human, social, cultural and natural capital at the aggregate
level. Thus wellbeing pathways could become a tool not only towards balance, personal development
and greater individual wellbeing, but a key to unlock synergies for sustainable development in balance
with others and future generations. Waterman’s idea of the ‘eudaimonic staircase,’ (Waterman, 2007)
suggests that processes to enhance eudaimonia, in self-realisation and development of one’s potential,
are potentially limitless. From a sustainability perspective, such eudaimonic processes can potentially
come with little or no environmental or societal impact,22 and may even entail benefits to
sustainability23. Therefore the potential for personal growth may not only be limitless personally, but a
valuable alternative pattern of human wellbeing, and an expansion of capabilities in line with the
requirements of sustainable development.
20 Where ‘sustainable development’ encompasses the three pillars; environment, social and economic within
and across generations.
21 Lyubomirski et al., (2005) discussed a concept of ‘sustainable wellbeing’ in the context of sustained
happiness of the individual over the long term, but not as a systemic concept including the wider society,
environment and economy.
22 As they could be in resource efficient or low impact activities and functionings..
23 Where personal growth is in forms that prioritise the development and protection of human, social, cultural
and natural capital.
An important caveat to any discussion of seeking wellbeing in development is the place of inequality
and poverty. It has sometimes been thought that wellbeing is something that only the wealthy can aspire
to. Lyubomirski et al. (2005) state that happiness is indeed important to the psychological wellbeing of
all people, not just the wealthy, as wellbeing can be preventative of pathology and because quality of
life, the ability to live well and physical and mental health matter to us all, including those in poverty.
However, such aspirations could not be described as a replacement for income, the meeting of needs or
equality in general. How wellbeing is actually applied is therefore of great importance (Hanratty and
Farmer, 2012; Jenkins, 2016) so that it does not become a smokescreen to avoid addressing inequality
and poverty. Alkire (2006) argues for a nuanced synthetic approach that addresses both the satisfiers of
basic needs and the expansion of capabilities.
Table 1 Dimensions and domains relevant to human wellbeing from prominent approaches
Human needs and
Layard et al.
Linton et al.
Delle Fave et al. (2011)
Neef et al.
Stiglitz et al.
quality ties to
a sense of
3. physical well
standard of living,
needs and values
4. spiritual well
5. values and
goals and a
5. activities and
sense of purpose
8. identity and
8. Insecurity, of
an economic as
well as a
10. and political
Life in general
11. Concluding remarks
Development has moved from being characterised by a focus on meeting ‘needs’ (Reader, 2006), to a
priority on economic growth (Roberts et al., 2015), followed by a more recent conception of expanding
capabilities and seeking multidimensional human wellbeing and sustainability (Alkire, 2002; Stiglitz et
al., 2009). The function of growth and development is being renovated towards the means and not the
ends (Anand and Sen, 2000) as the ends become human wellbeing and sustainability, rather than growth
in and of itself. This is a significant policy shift in global development, and one which opens up new
avenues for research and policy. Commonalities across the approaches to wellbeing and development
discussed involve moving beyond pathology to an enhancement of overall wellbeing, and from meeting
needs to expanding capabilities. Defining wellbeing can be problematic, contemporary development
literature has often sought to remain silent on the definition of what wellbeing is, what dimensions it
includes and how they are valued or weighted, as noted in Sen’s capability approach (Sen, 1985; 1992).
As wellbeing involves both individual agency or ‘internal factors’ and structural issues or ‘external
factors’ it can be influenced by the individual (Lyubomirski et al., 2005) the community (Cloutier and
Pfeiffer, 2015) society (Keyes, 1998) and indeed by public policy (Layard et al.., 2012). Wellbeing
pathways show thematic and dimensional overlaps with development literature that have specified
different dimensions relevant to capabilities, needs and wellbeing (Nussbaum, 2005; Max-Neef et al.,
1989; Stiglitz et al., 2009). The wellbeing approach, while increasingly recognising the significance of
influences such as social wellbeing and relational factors (Layard et al., 2012; Keyes, 1998), has tended
not to include ‘sustainability,’ the ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ in its framework. Defining what the
‘meeting of needs’ or ‘human wellbeing’ actually are, while crucial to debates on sustainable
development, have not been articulated to any great degree (Helne and Hirvalammi, 2015).
The aggregate impacts of our pathways to individual wellbeing have significant implications for society,
environment and future sustainability, and vice versa. These aspects of development have great
implications for how we seek to achieve wellbeing and how it is experienced, and some recourse to
sustainable development is necessary. The ‘wellbeing pathways’ approach (Delle Fave et al., 2011), is
a promising approach to individual wellbeing (Henderson and Knight, 2012), but is also promising for
its potential contribution to the achievement of human wellbeing as a development goal, and indeed the
related goal of balanced sustainable development. An integrated approach through ‘sustainable
wellbeing pathways’ could assist in making human wellbeing and sustainability the ends of
development, in keeping with the development critiques of recent decades. Following Kjell (2011)
individual wellbeing approaches need to be contextualised in the social and environmental systems in
which they are found because of the importance of external factors.
There are intrinsic ethical issues in the definition of wellbeing as our approaches have implications for
equality within and between generations, and for the environment. There is a need for public
participation and individual autonomy in definition, but also some recourse to sustainability principles
that balance how wellbeing is achieved across populations, and how the crucial issues of poverty and
inequality are addressed. There is much scope for further integration of development and wellbeing
research, requiring more public participation, analysis and policy deliberation. The emerging canon of
related research, when integrated, may be useful as a framework for analysis and a scaffold for
wellbeing policy in development.
The maximising well-being minimising emissions ‘MAXWELL’ project leading to this article has
received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under
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