More than 50 years ago, US politician Robert F. Kennedy said: “Gross Domestic Product measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

GDP is a crude device that fails to measure the element that is dearest to everyone: that elusive, hard-to-define quality called well-being.

While there is a correlation between GDP per capita and well-being, growth in the former is no guarantee of improvement in the latter.

Many countries are starting to realise that the measurement of well-being in society needs to be done with new tools.

New Zealand, for instance, was one of the first to officially incorporate measures of well-being on the government ledger. The index includes educational, environmental and health indicators.

A project between the Malta Foundation for the Well-being of Society and the University of Malta, led by academic researcher Marie Briguglio, aims to develop a new yardstick for a Malta Wellbeing Index.

This project is good news for those who believe that economic growth is not the holy grail of happiness. 

Speaking in parliament during an event held one year after the launch of the index, Briguglio said: “We owe it to the population to help them be critical thinkers.”

Former president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca argued that “now, more than ever, there has to be a shift where well-being becomes the overreaching aim of various policy efforts as the world moves towards recovering from the COVID pandemic”.

Whether this useful index proves effective in making people’s lives better will depend on the honesty and political will our leaders bring to the evidence it produces.

For too long, GDP figures have been weaponised to score political points, selectively interpreted to serve political ends. The creation of this index will certainly not bring an end to the squabbling over statistics.

The team working on developing the index would also do well to understand the limitations of such indices.

In 2000, the World Health Organisation ranked the performance of nations’ healthcare systems. In 2007, the Commonwealth Fund ranked industrial nations’ healthcare along several dimensions, including the numbers of doctors, technology utilisation, the prevalence of medical error, equality of access and preventive care.

There has been reasonable criticism about the methodologies used to determine the rankings in both these instances. The WHO ranking, for example, failed to properly account for specific socio-economic determinants. The Malta index would need to be scrutinised regularly to ensure that the granular data it contains leads to the correct interpretations of the reality on the ground.

In the future, socio-economic policies need to give more focused attention to the well-being of children and older people.

Despite undeniable economic progress in the last several decades, our society is encountering new challenges that need to be confronted head-on.

The working poor are a reality that often escapes political discussions on employment. The rise in mental health problems, including among children, is rarely raised as a priority for the policymakers.

Tackling the opioid crisis and managing chronic diseases such as diabetes do not feature regularly enough on our healthcare radar.     

The final scorecard that summarises the results of this socio-economic research will need to include the more salient elements that contribute to a decent quality of life, from environment to education, but also perhaps other factors that indicate the level of personal welfare, such as physical activity, leisure time, social networks, occupational satisfaction, home life, even spiritual engagement.

The Malta index of well-being will undoubtedly be followed closely by those interested in seeing our society make progress beyond the accumulation of visible wealth.

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