Account of Human Wellbeing Town Meeting

17 February 2010


Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of UCL, introduced the Town Meeting and reflected that the UCL Grand Challenges were a way of considering what a university can do to tackle some of the great global challenges that we face.

The Grand Challenges aimed to harvest expertise across UCL to garner new perspectives and create intellectual excitement and stimulus. Human Wellbeing is something that affects everyone, at different life stages, and is a crucially important issue.

Professor Nick Tyler (UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering) opened the evening’s presentations, observing that the starting point for Human Wellbeing is asking: what is it?

The starting point for wellbeing therefore would be to consider different concepts of wellbeing and how we might approach a definition of wellbeing. Wellbeing is a multi-faceted concept, which changes across time and in different cultures.

He also noted that ageing was a particular issue for wellbeing, in the context of extended quality of life as people live longer. He asked: ‘what would wellbeing look like in 100 years’ time?’ and suggested that thinking about the ways in which people can interact to improve quality of life offers a way forward for all disciplines in approaching wellbeing. He observed that his own discipline of engineering is about designing new infrastructure and systems to make life better for people.

Panel Presentations

Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) argued that the social brain (the collective network of brain regions involved in understanding social and human emotion) is crucial in understanding Human Wellbeing.
She noted the automatic, instinctive nature of emotional reactions; humans are constantly reading people’s social states in order to understand them. Some social processing and reactions are hardwired in the brain, as demonstrated by the capacity of newborn babies to respond to human facial expressions. Dr Blakemore argued that human relationships underpin happiness and are crucial in human development.

She described an experiment with 9-month-old babies which showed that they were able to ‘re-learn’ sounds from Mandarin following exposure to the language via contact with a real person, whilst those babies exposed to the language via video and soundtrack performed no better than babies with no exposure at all.

This shows both that re-learning is possible (at an early age) and that social interaction is a critical factor.

She suggested several implications for wellbeing:

  • the importance of social interaction in learning has implications for education;
  • the social brain undergoes protracted development, especially during adolescence;
  • developmental disorders affecting the social brain, such as depression, autism, schizophrenia;
  • are social networking sites the same as physical social interaction (especially for adolescents)?
  • can video conferencing ever replace face-to-face meetings?
  • are robot companions the same as real friends?

Professor Nick Chater

Professor Nick Chater (UCL Cognitive, Perceptual & Brain Sciences) noted that the challenge for humans is to make the world a better place by optimizing wellbeing. This is difficult to do if we can’t measure wellbeing.

Referring to UCL’s spiritual father Jeremy Bentham, Professor Chater argued that if Bentham’s ideology of utility was to be achieved, it requires some measurement of happiness.

He suggested that in an ideal world we would be able to devise a ‘hedometer’ which would measure how happy people are. In the absence of a hedometer, we can try to measure people’s happiness through the choices that they make, although this is not straightforward.

He described an experiment which evaluated how people value pain relief by looking at how much they would pay to avoid a mild pain. This showed that people valued the same pain differently depending on the contrasting pain, and that if they were given a higher endowment to pay to avoid pain, they completely rescaled their valuation of pain.

These results show that our ability to objectively evaluate our awareness of pain is flexible.

If the brain only knows local comparisons and people cannot stably trade money versus pain, a major challenge for wellbeing will be considering new ways of measuring pain or pleasure (given the difficulties at both neural and behavioural level) and defining a stable notion of utility or happiness.

Professor Steffen Huck

Professor Steffen Huck explained that economists would traditionally say that it doesn’t matter what wellbeing is: if it matters to people, they will be willing to pay for it, so we can measure people’s willingness to pay for certain things to help us to define wellbeing. The economics challenge therefore is whether to devise ways of measuring willingness to pay.

However, Professor Huck noted that measurement can alter the object; the commodification of things that matter can change them so they are not the same. If we can’t quantify what matters without altering it, we may need to approach evidenced-based policy differently (providing other evidence than quantifiable measures). These problems with and possible consequences of measurement might also cause us to ask whether we really want to measure wellbeing.

Professor Huck also discussed the role of memory. He noted that in economics, the past only matters in terms of the capital that has been acquired in the past. However, memory of past consumption – things experienced in life – does matter for wellbeing, even ‘bad’ memories, which can contribute to present happiness. Considerations of experience and memory are therefore important for wellbeing. He noted that memory provides a broader cross-disciplinary theme for wellbeing, incorporating:

  • the causes, consequences and prevention of memory loss;
  • memories of aesthetic experiences;
  • false memories;
  • memory and learning.

Professor Geraint Rees

Professor Geraint Rees argued that wellbeing has a neural basis as it has been shown that people are able to make subjective judgements of their wellbeing which are stable over time. Wellbeing is an introspective, meta-cognitive judgement of the internal state of self. However, our ability to be accurate about our metacognitive perception varies.

An experiment with patients receiving colonoscopies revealed that people’s happiness with the treatment depended on the ‘peak/end rule’ (ensuring that the end of the treatment was as comfortable as possible) rather than its length, showing that humans don’t integrate utility. This has several implications:

  • medical practice and how to minimise unpleasantness in medical procedures (a role for UCL Partners);
  • the contextual dependents of pain and pleasure;
  • ethical questions over levels of pain and the role of memory.

Professor Rees also spoke about the Grand Challenges, observing that they were essentially radical issues and that there was an obligation on UCL both to make a difference intellectually and globally, and to implement change locally. One option therefore might be to involve the whole of UCL in wellbeing by establishing it as a strategic target and measuring wellbeing at UCL. He concluded by summarising his proposal for three components of a research programme for wellbeing:

  • defining the neural basis of wellbeing;
  • changing medical practice through applied research; and
  • transformational issues for UCL as an institution.

Professor Jane Rendell

Professor Jane Rendell opened her talk by explaining that she was sceptical of the ‘wellbeing’ agenda, which she felt was a Government imposition onto the arts and humanities. She noted a recent Times Higher Education editorial on ‘wellbeing’ in higher education which asked whether the focus on services to promote wellbeing in universities were in fact being used to disguise its lack and warned that these shouldn’t be used to disguise the implications of funding cuts for universities.

Professor Rendell also remarked that she was wary of considering wellbeing as a definitive concept which could be measured. She noted in particular that a high level of resource consumption doesn’t contribute to high levels of wellbeing and that there was a disparity between economic wealth and happiness, referring to the New Economic’s Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. She also suggested that is wasn’t coincidental that the wellbeing agenda had emerged during the late capitalist period and that it was in fact being used as a ‘salve’ to the problems caused by unfettered economic growth. She also discussed the value of psychoanalytic approaches in revealing the unconscious, noting that wellbeing can’t be considered only through the conscious and what is known.

Finally, Professor Rendell discussed the importance of spatial and aesthetic experiences for wellbeing and the relationship between individual subjects and objects. Designing for wellbeing offered opportunities to engage with and care for people. She showed three Bartlett design projects that explored the use of creativity and imaging nation in design to engage in human wellbeing, as well as a specially-commissioned care home for Alzheimer’s patients, noting that designing built environments for an ageing society to optimise wellbeing is a major challenge.

Peter Antonioni

Peter Antonioni (UCL Management Science & Innovation) observed that modern capitalism has its roots in Christian thought, derived from a narrative of independent, autonomous reasoning achieved through self. He noted the importance of the spiritual dimensions of wellbeing, suggesting we should embrace spiritual reasoning, pointing to the long-livedness of spiritual practitioners. He suggested that rather than seeing a tension between boundaries of self and society we should explore the inter-relation between them. This has implications for combining market reasoning with empathetic understanding rather than opposing the two.

He also suggested that Taoism offered a route to wellbeing through practical guidance to managing our relationship with the sacred and a way of balancing our sense of self with the wider world. He emphasised four key points:

  • seeing the relationship between the individual and wider society as in balance
  • operating the wu wei principle of ‘far sight’ and ‘least action’: that is, thinking long-term and avoiding unnecessary and negative interventions;
  • relaxation: persons and systems go critical when they are pushed too hard; so be comfortable with some redundancy;
  • adaptability: we have little control over our circumstances, but may choose our reaction, so it is best to ‘be like water' to pursue wellbeing in a changing and uncertain world.

He suggested that a sense of equilibrium is crucial for wellbeing, offering a strategy for coping with changes over time. He also questioned whether, although wellbeing was an admirable goal, short-term pursuit of wellbeing would in fact undermine its achievement.


The subsequent discussion with questions from the audience raised a number of questions relating to:

  • whether our lifestyle and health prognosis offers a way of measuring our wellbeing;
  • whether it is possible to educate ourselves to have a positive life view;
  • why humans haven’t learnt that consumption doesn’t make us happy (as highlighted by Richard Easterlin in his 2003 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences paper ‘Explaining Happiness’)and therefore concentrate on other things to achieve wellbeing;
  • that people are driven to compare their material success with that of their peers; however, evolutionary pressure is driven, not by absolute, but by relative success
  • the interchangeability of ‘wellbeing’, ‘quality of life’, ‘utility’, ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’ and whether we needed to better distinguish these;
  • the observation that wellbeing is not just one aspect of life and the challenge is how to integrate different dimensions into overall wellbeing;
  • that happiness could perhaps be conceived of as short-term, whereas wellbeing is about the long-term;
  • the key elements of wellbeing, which could be summed up as: physical health, emotional health; cognitive health; social health and spiritual health.

Read our blog post on the Town Meeting here and submit your own post or comments.

Check out our Ideas Booth here.

Page last modified on 20 jul 10 15:49