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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsThe logical starting point in explaining what difference wellbeing lens makes is to consider carefully what kinds of positivity it entails. We're assuming that by showing an interest in the wellbeing lens, you're interested in the improvement of human lives. And obviously, all planning is in some sense positive. So in what ways are wellbeing promoters distinctively positive? Well, one really useful starting point is to say that a wellbeing lens invites us to consider and to promote really good lives, not just adequate standards of living. We can express this by referring to an imaginary line, an OK line, which loosely represents our minimal standards of decency or adequacy. Real wellbeing happens well above this OK line.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 secondImagine a set of steps leading from the worst imaginable state of affairs towards the best imaginable life. And right down at the bottom step, you have the line of mere survival. Below this level lives are either impossible, people die, or else are so intolerable that life is not worth living. Slightly above this level you have levels where people live in the face of extreme adversity; extreme poverty, illness, they suffer unfairness, and so on. These various pathological lines remind us of the need for urgent remedial action to remove extreme suffering. If we raise our gaze slightly further up to the middle step, you have what we might call an OK line. Now at this level, people's lives become at least adequate.

Skip to 1 minute and 53 secondsThey live moderately well. This is the level at which people's human rights are upheld. Their health is-- well, it's OK. They have the resources that they need to live with basic dignity. And, throughout most of world history, this has been the limit of the aspiration of most planners. People have tried as hard as they could to raise as many of the people as possible towards this level of adequacy. But the trouble with the OK line is that it doesn't really inspire us to lead people towards absolutely wonderful lives. And after all, that's what we really want from this world. We want to live excellent lives, not merely adequate lives.

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 secondsSo what the well-being lens does is it forces us to raise our gaze above the OK line. It inspires appreciative forms of learning where people learn about other people's strengths and their enjoyments. And it promotes aspirational forms of planning where people plan really excellent lives, and not merely decent or adequate lives. So this OK line, this line representing the minimally decent life provides a very simple metaphor through which we can organise our debates about our moral and our practical priorities, about the balance that we try to achieve between remedial action aimed at removing harms and injustices against aspirational planning, in which we're looking to facilitate really excellent lives.

Skip to 3 minutes and 28 secondsIn the field of health, for example, should it be our moral priority to provide sanitation conditions and provide medical systems that enable people to live free from illness? Or should we be aiming higher to try to learn from people who live with really excellent health, who make the best possible use of their health to live really excellent lives? In the field of employment in the workplace, is it the duty of employers simply to facilitate minimally acceptable labour standards, or should they be trying to facilitate really excellent, fun, convivial working environments in which people can actually flourish at work rather than merely avoid injustice?

Skip to 4 minutes and 14 secondsLooking further down at the poverty line, is it good enough to ask poverty reduction agencies only to aim at the reduction of poverty, or have we now perhaps reached an era in which it's possible for the whole of the world's population to aspire, for the first time in human history, to live really wonderful lives? Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who have argued strongly against aspirational forms of planning. According to the doctrine of negative utilitarianism, what governors and planners should be aiming for is to help people meet those minimally decent standards of living, and that's all. They should be helping people avoid unjust inequalities, to avoid illness, and to live free from rampant forms of conflict.

Skip to 5 minutes and 5 secondsSo it's better perhaps to imagine the positivity inspired by the wellbeing lens, not just as a vertical movement from bad to good, but as a diagonal line that takes us, yes, from bad to good, but also from those instrumental values towards the really good life, towards the ultimate value of happiness and the life well lived. And interestingly, in one of the most famous diagrams ever draw, Abraham Maslow's pyramid diagram of the hierarchy of needs, he implied both of these movements. So he designated, for example, the lower levels of his pyramid as an area in which people pursue the basic needs that they require for a minimally adequate life.

Skip to 5 minutes and 51 secondsAnd at this level, he was talking about instrumental values, things that are good for the sake of something else. But at the higher level, he designated social goods like love and belonging, and psychological goods like self-esteem and self-actualization that are intrinsically valued, as well as being instrumentally good for other reasons. And at the very pinnacle of his diagram, interestingly in his later life, he insisted we should recognise self-transcendence, implicitly arguing for social well-being as being the ultimate good.

Skip to 6 minutes and 31 secondsSo in summary, the OK line is a useful metaphor for thinking about aspirational promotion of well-being and how it relates to more modest efforts to uphold minimal standards of any sort, whether these are about health or livelihoods or peace or social justice, they promote remedial action. They don't tend to inspire activities that would lead towards really excellent lives. The wellbeing lens requires us to look well beyond these minimal standards. We want people to be happy and not just to survive. We want people to love each other, to relish each other's company, not just to recognise one another as human.

Skip to 7 minutes and 10 secondsAnd we hope that our coworkers and our fellow citizens will be active and creative participants and enthusiastic collaborators, not just that they will tolerate us and avoid causing us harm. And so, please, could you share with us your thoughts on whether the organisations and the activities that you are engaged in are achieving a sensible balance between, on the one hand, attending to pathologies below the OK line, and to wellbeing above the line?

Positivity and the OK line

Positivity means looking above the minimal standards of the ‘OK line’. This metaphor is introduced as a way of structuring debates about pathological/remedial approaches versus appreciative learning and aspirational planning.

Pathological and remedial approaches focus on learning about and mitigating or removing harms (e.g. poverty, illness, crime, violence).

Appreciative learning emphasises the benefits of learning about, and savouring, the good aspects of people’s capabilities, lives, and achievements.

Aspirational planning aims to achieve positive results that take us well beyond the mere removal of harms, enabling people to live wonderful not merely adequate lives.

We invite you to comment on this film with your thoughts about whether the organisations and activities that you are engaged in are achieving a balance between attending to pathologies below the ok line and to wellbeing above the line.

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This video is from the free online course:

Social Wellbeing

The University of Edinburgh

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