Human Development: A Vision of Well-being

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 27. December 2012 - 18:35
Dahl, Arthur Lyon


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland


Sustainable development is an anthropocentric concept focussed on human well-being, now and it the future, through development that respects the planet's environmental constraints and potentials. Yet the debate launched by Amartya Sen and others some 30 years ago on "human development" remains narrow. There are entire areas missing, mainly because the debate has been framed largely in economic and materialistic terms, when we know that "development" to achieve “well-being” is a far more complex undertaking that has important psychological, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions. The recent recognition of the need to look beyond GDP (Stiglitz 2009) has now been acknowledged by governments at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012.

Addressing the concept of well-being requires an exploration at the deepest levels of human nature. Who are we and what is our purpose in life? For materialists we are simply a social animal, and well-being can come from meeting our physical and social needs. Humanists may add an ethical dimension of responsibility for our fellow humans and the environment. For many, the human experience is essentially spiritual in nature, rooted in the inner spiritual reality that we all share in common. Each of these leads to an emphasis on different levels of prosperity and well-being. Assuming that this is an inclusive hierarchy, addressing the highest level should respond to needs at all the others as well.

The materialist perspective reduces human beings to competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and to objects of manipulation by the market, with an intractable conflict between endless individual consumption and humanity's collective need for equitable access to resources. We desire a world of peace and prosperity, but much of economic and psychological theory depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest. Yet it can be argued that well-being for everyone necessitates a more just and sustainable social order. This would require qualities like moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good, which must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production, in which the well-being of a few is attained at the expense of the many (BIC 2010).

The ultimate purpose of development should be to improve the prosperity and well-being of each individual on this planet. UNDP has produced the Human Development Index ( to focus on this in a collective way at the national level, but this hides significant disparities within countries. What is lacking is a way to operationalize the concepts of development to achieve well-being at the level of individuals (Dahl 2012a). Ideally, the best measure of successful development would be that it enables every human being to fulfil his or her potential in life both in cultivating individual qualities, personality and capacities and in contributing to the advancement of society.

Well-being is not a static concept, but is expressed at multiple levels and in different ways throughout a lifetime. It is also relative both in comparison with others and in relation to the individual's own previous experience. Throughout the human lifecycle, individuals develop and achieve well-being in several dimensions, including physical growth and health, security and safety, education, work, financial security, justice and fairness, human rights and freedoms, a place in the community, and cultural and spiritual identity. The content of each of these will be examined later. First we shall explore different ways of approaching the concept of individual well-being.


There are many different ways to look at human development and well-being, from the viewpoints of various academic disciplines (psychology, sociology, education, anthropology, philosophy), or as defined in the many cultures and religious/spiritual traditions of the world. There have been governmental as well as academic efforts to define and measure human development, as well as documents adopted collectively by governments at the United Nations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Millennium Development Goals. The following cross-comparison of several such sources draws out some widely-accepted dimensions of individual development necessary for well-being.

Human needs

Psychological research has long identified what Maslow (1943) termed a hierarchy of needs:
- physiological needs (breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion)
- safety needs (security of: body, employment, resources, moral certainty, the family, health, property)
- love and belonging (friendship, family, sexual intimacy)
- esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others)
- self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts).

While these are not always pursued sequentially, a deficiency at a lower level can often interfere with individual development at higher levels. Later commentators have suggested that the relative importance of social needs (esteem) and higher individual needs (self-actualization) will vary between individualistic and more collective cultures, but all levels need to be reflected in any definition of human development.

Characteristics of being human

A similar perspective comes from recognizing four fundamental characteristics of a human being. The first is as a biological organism with purely physical requirements for life. Secondly, as a social organism, a person has emotional or psychological needs that can only be met through relationships with others in a family, community and society. Thirdly, as a thinking and reasoning being there are intellectual needs and capacities to develop; Maslow himself recognized a desire to know and to understand. Finally, all religions and many cultures would identify a spiritual dimension of life as the highest realization of human purpose, including acquiring spiritual qualities, refining one's character, and contributing to the advancement of civilization. To be inclusive, the measures of human individual development would logically include all these levels.

Millennium Development Goals

The first six Millennium Development Goals (UN 2010) address some of the most fundamental barriers to individual development and well-being:
- Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
- Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
- Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
- Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
- Goal 5: Improve maternal health
- Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

The dimensions of basic needs, health and education must obviously be included as necessary requirements for well-being, along with special efforts to ensure the development of the half of the human population that is female. Every life lost to poverty or disease is a complete failure to achieve well-being.

Human rights

Another way to identify the dimensions that need to be included in individual human development is through the human rights agreed internationally in such instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948). Denial of a human right is a denial of one or more enabling conditions for, or forms of, well-being. On this basis, we should include the dimensions listed in table 1.


Dimensions of individual well-being in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(Article Number)

- free and equal in dignity and rights (1) without distinction (2)
- life, liberty and security of person (3) no slavery (4) no torture (5) no arbitrary detention (9)
- recognition before the law (6) equal protection, no discrimination (7) effective legal remedy (8) fair and public hearing (10) presumed innocent (11)
- privacy, family, home, correspondence, honor, reputation (12)
- freedom of movement and residence within State, right to leave country and return (13)
- right to asylum from persecution (14)
- right to nationality, and to change nationality (15)
- marriage and family, protection of family (16)
- right to own property (17)
- freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to change religion/belief (18)
- freedom of opinion and expression, to receive and impart information and ideas through all media regardless of frontiers (19)
- peaceful assembly and association (20)
- take part in government, to vote, equal access to public services (21)
- social security (22)
- economic, social and cultural rights for dignity and free development of personality (22)
- work, employment, favorable conditions, equal pay for equal work, just and favorable remuneration, protection against unemployment, social protection, form and join trade unions (23)
- rest and leisure, reasonable working hours, holidays with pay (24)
- standard of living, food, clothing, housing, medical care, social services (25)
- security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood (25)
- special care for motherhood and childhood (25)
- education, full development of human personality, understanding and friendship among all groups (26)
- cultural life, arts, scientific advancement (27)
- author's rights to scientific, literary or artistic production (27)
- social and international order to realize these rights (28)
- duties to community for free and full development of personality, respect rights and freedoms of others (29)
- meet the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society (29)

Life-cycle of needs

Well-being is not a fixed goal to be reached by each person at some point in time, but is reflected continually in a cyclical process of individual progress or evolution, from infancy and childhood to adulthood, reproduction and finally old age and death. Throughout this process, each individual has qualities and potentials to be discovered and cultivated. The types of development and their priority change at different stages of this life cycle. Where individual progress is initially dependent on others, and the family or some substitute for it are primordial for healthy human development and well-being, autonomy increases until the individual has almost complete responsibility for setting and achieving objectives in life. The increasing dependence in old age may reduce well-being in a material sense, but there is clear potential for continuing advancement in spiritual virtues like patience and detachment.

The quality of individual development at one stage is often an important determinant of the development possibilities and limitations at subsequent stages. A child physically and mentally stunted by malnutrition will have reduced potential for many kinds of future development. Well-being would therefore need to be considered at different critical stages in the human life cycle.

Recent indicators of happiness and well-being

The recognition of the inadequacy of purely economic indicators has led to a number of initiatives to “measure the unmeasurable” in terms of human values, well-being and happiness. These are now producing methodologies that make it possible to consider these higher dimensions of human well-being in a measurable way.

Bhutan was the first country to assess the purpose of development through Gross National Happiness (Ura et al. 2012, It is an important attempt to capture a culturally-relevant view of both material and spiritual development in nine domains with 33 clustered indicators containing 124 variables. “In the GNH Index, unlike certain concepts of happiness in current western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional – not measured only by subjective well-being, and not focused narrowly on happiness that begins and ends with oneself and is concerned for and with oneself. The pursuit of happiness is collective, though it can be experienced deeply personally. Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances and the options for diversity must be wide.” (Ura et al. 2012a, p. 1) As the Prime Minister of Bhutan put it “We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ … in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.” (Ura et al. 2012a, p. 7)



i. Psychological Wellbeing
- Life satisfaction
- Emotional balance (positive and negative emotions)
- Spirituality

ii. Health
- Self-reported health status
- Healthy days
- Long-term disability
- Mental health

iii. Education
- Literacy
- Educational qualification
- Knowledge
- Values

iv. Culture
- Language
- Artisan skills
- Socio-cultural participation
- Driglam Namzha (Way of Harmony: formal etiquette)

v. Time Use
- Working hours
- Sleeping hours

vi. Good Governance
- Political participation
- Political freedom
- Service delivery
- Government performance

vii. Community Vitality
- Social support
- Community relationships
- Family
- Victim of crime

viii. Ecological Diversity and Resilience
- Pollution
- Environmental responsibility
- Wildlife
- Urban issues

ix. Living Standards
- Household income
- Assets
- Housing quality

Japan has now announced plans to measure national happiness with 132 numerical indicators covering socioeconomic conditions, physical and mental health, and social relations, as well as intergenerational and international differences, and sustainability. The OECD is also developing international standard measures of well-being, and the European Environment Agency is working on a well-being index. Other countries and international organizations are also working on indicators of well-being and happiness.

On 2 April 2012, the Earth Institute of Columbia University launched the first World Happiness Report at the UN (Helliwell et al. 2012). This has drawn on data from the Gallup World Poll, the World Values Survey, the European Values Survey and the European Social Survey to assess subjective well-being or happiness, both as felt at one point in time (affective) and as evaluated in a reflection on life satisfaction. It demonstrates the validity and policy relevance of such subjective measures, and encourages their widespread use in other surveys. To explain the variations in happiness, it analyzes both external factors (income, work, community, governance, values and religion) and personal factors (mental health, physical health, family, education, gender and age).

Well-being or happiness indicators would represent the summary overall impact of successful individual development. They reflect an integrated perspective that would capture dimensions not shown in the individual characteristics or levels of development.

Values-based indicators

A recent research project in Europe on values-based indicators of education for sustainable development (Harder et al. in press; has developed a variety of indicators for individual values such as empowerment, integrity, justice, trustworthiness, unity in diversity, and respect and care for the environment, that can lead to well-being for an individual and in a group. While these are tools intended for use at the project and organizational level, they also favour behaviours that can strengthen social relationships and increase well-being collectively, as well as at the individual level (Dahl 2012b).

Stages of national development

While human needs, potentials and desires are reasonably universal, the economic development context within which an individual is born and lives will condition many aspects of both the possibilities for and results of individual development and well-being. These range along a spectrum from a country or region with indigenous populations living traditional lifestyles; to an economically-poor country with rural subsistence farmers, primary and extractive industries and urban slums; through stages of industrialization, either with large multinationals and foreign direct investment, or with many small and medium companies and a few large domestic conglomerates; to a largely tertiary and services-oriented economy. How well-being is achieved and perceived will be very different at each of these stages of development.


Combining all these approaches and extracting a synthesis has produced the following dimensions of human well-being in a more-or-less hierarchical arrangement from physical and environmental through economic and social to the more intangible.

Physical growth/health
- access to basic foodstuffs, food security
- adequate standard of living
- mental and physical health care, access to primary health care, preventive and curative medicine
- access to energy (cooking, heating, lighting, modern appliances)
- adequate shelter, housing
- clean and unpolluted environment
- possibilities for rest and recreation, physical fitness
- special care for motherhood and childhood
- assistance with disabilities and handicaps
- care for the elderly

Security and safety
- life, liberty and security of person
- protection from slavery, torture, arbitrary detention
- security of home and family
- safety from disasters, unsafe conditions, excessive risks of physical harm
- protection from domestic violence
- freedom from crime, corruption in everyday life
- security from military action, violent repression, terrorism

- literacy, access to knowledge
- formal, informal and continuing education
- full development of human personality
- education to understanding and friendship among all groups
- work skills, retraining
- ability to invest in education
- access to and participation in scientific advancement and technology development
- access to information and communications technologies

- right to work, employment, informal sector, subsistence, entrepreneurship opportunities for wealth creation, economic activity
- just and favorable remuneration, equal pay for equal work
- ability to meet own needs and provide for family
- favorable work conditions, protection against unemployment, social protection, freedom of association, time for rest and leisure, reasonable working hours, holidays with pay
- author's rights to scientific, literary or artistic production
- access to extension services, technical advice, business management advice, legal advice, accounting services
- business access to bank account, credit, microcredit, business license
- effective process for litigation, dispute settlement, legal assistance

Financial security
- protection of real value of income, savings, capital and pensions from inflation
- access to financial services: payments, savings, credit and insurance
- reliable and adequate money supply, means of exchange, convertibility
- protection from banking failures, fraud, undisclosed risks
- security from theft, identity theft, unlawful dispossession, kidnapping, piracy, extortion

Justice and fairness
- recognition before the law, equal protection
- effective legal remedy, fair and public hearing, presumption of innocence
- low level of income inequality, fair distribution of wealth
- upward mobility with effort
- fair taxation, equitable share of responsibility

Human rights and freedoms
- personal freedom and initiative, equality in dignity and rights, free development of personality
- freedom of speech, right to hold and express opinions, to receive and impart information and ideas through all media regardless of frontiers
- right to peaceful assembly and association
- freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to change religion/belief
- right to privacy of person, family, home, correspondence
- protection of reputation
- right to own property
- free movement and choice of place of residence
- right to a nationality, and to change nationality
- protection from all sorts of discrimination including gender, etc.
- equal access to public services, right to social security
- right to take part in government, to vote, to participate in political life

Place in the community
- personal status and dignity
- social networks, friends to count on
- marriage and family, procreation and raising children, united family circle, protection of family, divorce
- a community respecting public order and morality
- community trust, reciprocity, resilience
- participation and empowerment
- mobility, public transport, access to markets
- security in the event of incapacity, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other unavoidable lack of livelihood
- old age security (pension etc.)

Cultural and spiritual identity
- right to a cultural identity, heritage and cultural diversity, a sense of belonging (having, retaining cultural roots and knowledge)
- having a value system, beliefs, ethics and morals
- vision and purpose in life, hope for a better life, a better world
- ability to develop the potential in human consciousness
- participation in culture and the arts
- access to beauty, to nature
- overall evaluative well-being or life satisfaction


When sustainable development is considered in the wider context of human purpose and well-being presented here, it takes on a whole new meaning, in which its economic, social and environmental dimensions are fully integrated. At the same time, rather than seeming utopian and unattainable. it is precisely this emphasis on the social, cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of well-being that can motivate changes in human behaviour and drive a bottom-up transformation in human society across all its many and diverse components. The focus on the individual makes sustainable development immediately relevant. While global environmental problems and failures in economic and political systems may seem remote from individual concerns and possibilities of action, everyone can start to act to bring improvements in their relations with others within their local community and work-place, and to experience the self-reinforcing effect of visible results in improved well-being.


Bahá'í International Community. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Bahá'í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, 3 May 2010.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2012a. Achievements and gaps in indicators for sustainability. Ecological Indicators, vol. 17, p. 14-19. June 2012.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2012b. Ethical sustainability footprint for individual motivation. Presented at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference, London, UK, 26-29 March 2012.

Harder, Marie K, Gemma Burford, et al. (in press). Can values be measured? Significant contributions from a small civil society organisation through action research. Action Research Journal.

Helliwell, John, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs. 2012. World Happiness Report. Earth Institute, Columbia University.

Maslow, A.H. 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370-396.

Stiglitz, Joseph E., Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. (2009). Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

United Nations. 2010. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010. New York: United Nations.

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Ura, Karma, Sabina Alkire, Tshoki Zangmo and Karma Wangdi. 2012a. A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index. Thimphu, Bhutan: Centre for Bhutan Studies. 96 p. Available from Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission.

Ura, Karma, Sabina Alkire, Tshoki Zangmo and Karma Wangdi. 2012b. An Extensive Analysis of GNH Index. May 2012. Thimphu, Bhutan: Centre for Bhutan Studies. 213 p. Available from Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission.

Last updated 27 December 2012