18 and 19 November 2016 Paris Sorbonne Understanding Wellbeing: Representations, Discourse and Policy



18 and 19 November 2016



Understanding Wellbeing: Representations, Discourse and Policy


This conference is the second in a series on wellbeing in the Anglosphere


The 2014 wellbeing conference held at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University identified a wealth of literature and political interest in the concept of ‘wellbeing’, but found that it remained a multi-faceted, fuzzy, ill-defined concept, despite attempts by researchers and policymakers to explore the nature and drivers of wellbeing. Many publications dealing with the notion refer to other concepts such as happiness or ‘economic, social and environmental sustainability’ (Layard, 2006; Scott, 2012).

Wellbeing is a concept which was first scientifically examined in the field of psychology. Today the disciplinary borderline between psychology and economics seems to be blurred. It is certainly not surprising that economics recently became centred on human behaviour with the development of ‘behavioural macroeconomics’ (George Akerlov, who received the Nobel Prize in 2001). The following year, two psychologists were awarded the Nobel Prize for economics: Daniel Kahneman « for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty » and Vernon L. Smith « for having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms ».

However, historically speaking, wellbeing derives from the concept of happiness, since the Ancient Greek only referred to happiness. Aristotle distinguished between two different types of happiness: eudaimonic happiness, which refers to true happiness achieved by leading a virtuous life and doing what is worthwhile, with the realisation of human potential as the ultimate goal, and hedonistic happiness, derived from mere personal pleasure and contentment. It seems that the notion ‘wellbeing’ as such appeared recently as a rather modern concept which you could not consider before the Enlightenment era with the French and American revolutions which brought the ‘pursuit of happiness’ up to the status of a ‘human inalienable right’ in 1776. The same year Jeremy Bentham addressed happiness as a measure of societal wellbeing to promote utility or ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (Brunon-Ernst, 2014).

Recent attention to wellbeing has focused on subjective wellbeing which, in the field of economics, is close to John Stuart Mill’s ‘deliberative utilitarianism’: how people think and feel about their lives. Indeed, Mill rejected hedonism and defended human happiness that consisted in the exercise of one’s rational capacities. Emphasis on ‘deliberative’ wellbeing emerged after the publication of the 2009 study on alternatives to GDP, commissioned by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and led by the economists Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz (Fitoussi, Sen, Stiglitz, 2009). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) took on the recommendations of the report and produced a dashboard of indicators to measure both objective and subjective wellbeing. In the same vein, in 2010, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was asked by Prime Minister David Cameron to create a ‘UK happiness index’ as part of a £2m-a-year wellbeing project. ONS documentation refers to this kind of subjective wellbeing as evaluative accounts, which it claims is privileged over hedonistic accounts in government and recognized non-government surveys in the UK (ONS 2010, 2012, 2016). Recent approaches thus see wellbeing as “having three core dimensions: the material that emphasises practical welfare and standards of living; the relational that emphasises personal and social relations; and the subjective that emphasises values and perceptions. The three dimensions are interlinked and their demarcations are highly fluid (McGregor, 2007; Sumner and Mallett, 2013)”.


However, the emphasis on subjective wellbeing and, in particular, ‘deliberative’ utilitarianism moves the focus away from other more objective concerns linked to inequality or welfare (Blanchflower, 2009; Gadrey, 2012). Indeed, the current wellbeing measures in the UK take no account of structural inequalities or social relations between communities, which are also significant key drivers of wellbeing. Moreover, subjective wellbeing is close to the sense of economic utility, relating to ‘personal benefit gained by an individual from a particular interaction or a particular behavior’ (Eichhorn 2013). This fits the British neo-liberal model defined by a market-led approach, a high level of risk taking, individualism and a low level of de-commodification (Esping-Andersen, 1990;Soskice and Hall, 2001; Catherine Coron, 2016). The resurgence of 19th century laissez-faire economic liberalism since the 1980s is thus a key to the current context of wellbeing, which favours less general social welfare and a greater need to measure individual wellbeing (Scott, 2012; Eichhorn, 2013).

Nevertheless, there does not seem to be the same enthusiasm for wellbeing measurement in the US, where the neo-liberal model is also a significant framework for the economic, political and social landscape. Indeed, promoters of wellbeing measurement (Miringoff, 1999; Kahneman & Krueger, 2006; Gallup, 2008-2016) have had trouble in convincing agencies, legislators, and the general public that it would be worthwhile collecting and analysing subjective wellbeing data to guide public policy. This is surprising in a country whose Declaration of Independence clearly states that the pursuit of happiness is one of the inalienable rights of its citizens. Perhaps studies that have shown that the motivation to pursue happiness does not translate into greater wellbeing for Americans have dampened enthusiasm to go beyond GDP and measure wellbeing in this country (Easterlin, 1974; Lane, 2000; Frey and Stutzer, 2002; Shah and Marks, 2004, Pauwels).

Yet, if we look closer at the evidence, wellbeing is a defining feature of public policy both in the US and the UK and, indeed, in many other English-speaking nations, in a variety of different economic and social settings. This conference thus aims to go beyond the definitional complexities and explore how wellbeing has been and is currently represented in the literature and in political discourse in the Anglosphere to promote specific economic and social agendas and/or to promote public policy. We would welcome contributions that deal with the following issues:

  • Historical representations of wellbeing promoting public policy and practice
  • Wellbeing representation in literature of the Anglosphere, and its impact on society
  • Contemporary political discourse on wellbeing in policymaking
  • Wellbeing discourse and policy in a variety of economic and social settings: education policy and practice, health systems and services, labour market reform, sustainable development and the environment, public policy at the regional level…


Proposals (300-500 words) and a short biography (5-10 lines) should be sent by 10 July 2016 to Louise Dalingwater at louise.dalingwater@univ-paris3.fr, to Catherine Coron at catherine.coron@u-paris2.fr, and to François Ropert at francois.ropert@u-cergy.fr.


Scientific Committee:


Emmanuelle Avril, Professeur, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3,

Martine Azuelos, Professeur émérite, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3

Anne Brunon-Ernst Professeur Université Panthéon-Assas

Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry, Professeur, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3

Valérie Peyronel, Professeur, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3,

Christine Zumello, Professeur, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3



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Blanchflower, D., & Oswald, A. J. (2004), “Well-Being Over Time in Britain and the USA”, Department of Economics, Dartmouth College and NBER, 6106.


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Brunon-Ernst, A. (2014), “The Felicific Calculus : Jeremy Bentham’s Definition of Happiness”,, Contribution to the Conference, Wellbeing : Towards a Cross-Cultural Definition, Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3 University, 24 & 25 January 2014, (article to be published).


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Coron, C. (2016), “Reshaping the model: Higher Education in the UK and the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal model of capitalism since 1970” in Catherine Coron et Fanny Lauby (eds.), Capitalisme, recherche et éducation, Revue LISA / LSA e-journal, vol. XIV-n°1.


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Pauwels, M.C. (2014), “ ‘Fifty Shades of Happiness’: the Challenge of Defining Wellbeing in the United States, Contribution to the Conference, Wellbeing : Towards a Cross-Cultural Definition, Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3 University, 24 & 25 January 2014, (article to be published).


Rablen, M., (2010) “The Promotion of Wellbeing: A Primer for Policymakers” Working Paper Number 10-25, Economics and Finance Working Paper Series.


Scott, K., (2012), Measuring Wellbeing: Towards Sustainability? London: Routledge.


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Shah, J., S. Heaton & N. Marks (2004), “A Well-being Manifesto for a Flourishing Society”, New Economics Foundation: London.


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