Looking for Longitude: Measuring Wellbeing

Wellbeing as the New Measure for the Progress of Humanity

Have you ever considered the time before we knew how to measure longitude? Probably not, we take it for granted, but it’s a fundamental; Uber, google maps, shipping, planes, we rely on it everyday.


Latitude is straight forward. The lines run parallel from the equator to the poles in a series of shrinking concentric lines. Longitude runs the other way.

But the key difference is latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, whereas longitude shifts with the sands of time, determined by where you are in the world.

Before we had a practical method for measuring longitude, many a ship Captain became lost at sea. People didn’t believe it would ever be possible to accurately find longitude, but it became imperative.  Merely following the straight lines of latitude, left too many lives lost upon the rocks.

Well we live in a time when all we have to follow, as a measure of success, is the Gross Domestic Product of a country (GDP). How much money we make is meant to tell us if we are on course for a fulfilled life. Whilst it may be part of the answer, it is clearly still not all of the answer.

GDP is an incomplete measure of progress. Without the whole picture, we fail to account for the social impact of our decisions to drive economic growth.

The human development agenda, of at least the past 60 years, has evidenced that economic growth alone is not the answer to solving the world’s complex social issues. Following an economic growth agenda has resulted in the astonishing wealth gap, where the world’s most undeveloped countries have gone backwards in disadvantage; experiencing worsening levels of disease, war, life expectancy and debt. Each year 600,000 children still die of preventable or treatable diseases and every 3.6 seconds a person dies of starvation[1].

Whilst the world’s civil society appears apathetic, we are not blind.  Forces of globalisation, that work to collate and share the damning evidence, have resulted in a new level of collective enlightenment. The mantra that more money will make us happy, or the world a better and safer place, has been silenced.

We now need to turn this realisation into practical action to create real social change.

 Just as longitude is needed alongside latitude, we need to measure Wellbeing alongside economic growth to navigate the progress of humanity.

This realisation has seen measurement frameworks expand to include societal wellbeing indicators. At the global level, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UNDP Human Development Index are just some examples of institutions expanding measures of progress. However, what these frameworks, and others alike lack, is a holistic and systemic approach to provide a universal yardstick. Where a country, or an organisation, makes progress under some indicators it still does not reveal if we are better off overall. 

At a local level, they fail to account for weightings of how much something matters for Wellbeing in a particular context. Where access to a tractor may have a significant impact on one person’s Wellbeing, it may be redundant for another. Measurement enables us to put this difference into the clear and actionable language of data.   

Value in terms of Wellbeing enables us to assess the worth of programs in terms of how well they address the needs of people, rather than just throwing good money after bad.

Whilst the idea of a holistic measure that quantifies the value of something to our Wellbeing based on individual context may seem unachievable, history reveals that ‘looking for longitude’ was once a synonym for ‘attempting the impossible’.  As in the days before longitude, where we relied on the straight lines of latitude, being governed by the financial value system is leaving too many lives dashed upon the rocks. Given how fundamental longitude became for our everyday lives, measuring Wellbeing stands to be the greatest scientific quest of our time. We are faced with the imperative task of refining a new measure for the progress of humanity; Wellbeing.

[1] UNICEF on the Millennium Development Goals, Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger;  https://www.unicef.org/mdg/poverty.html