Wellbeing is on everybody’s mind. Who doesn’t want to be well, healthy and happy, after all? In this episode, I’m talking to a real expert in this field, Dr. Anat Itay-Sarig.
We discuss what wellbeing means, why it’s more than just the occasional yoga class or a latte macchiato in the morning, and why you as a leader should pay attention to the issue. We cover the spheres of public policy, where wellbeing has been discussed for quite some time now and is part of the official government policy of countries such as New Zealand, but we also talk a lot about what this means for businesses.
Finally, we connect the dots between wellbeing, which can be a fluffy concept at times, and the hard world of numbers and statistics. My guest Anat is a data scientist, after all.
Dr. Anat Itay-Sarig is an expert on planning and measuring wellbeing, progress, and happiness – particularly incorporating them into strategy and policy for the public, private and third sector. She was the chief scientist and co-founder of BBetter, a data analytics start-up acquired in 2019. She holds a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and conducted a substantial part of her research in UCL, the University of London. She is teaching at the Government & Sustainability program at the IDC Herzliya, and at the MBA program at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo. She is a consultant to international organisations, NGO’s, governments and businesses on how to apply wellbeing prism into their strategies. Anat passionately advocates for using wellbeing indicators to better plan success.
My name is Matthias Catón and today we will be talking about wellbeing, and I have a great interview guest here today. Her name is Dr. Anat Itay-Sarig. She is an expert on planning and measuring wellbeing, progress, and happiness. Particularly how to incorporate those things into strategy and policy for the public, the private and the third sector.
She was the chief scientist and cofounder of be better a data analytics startup that I think recently got sold. She holds a PhD from the Hebrew university of Jerusalem and she has done research. At UCL in London, and she’s also teaching right now in the government and sustainability program at IDC in Herzliya in Israel, and also at the MBA program at the academic college of Tel Aviv Jaffo.
She’s a consultant to international organizations. NGOs governance businesses on how to apply wellbeing into strategy, and she’s a passionate advocate for using wellbeing indicators to better plan success. That was a long introduction, but you’re doing a lot of things. Welcome to the show, Anat!
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:02:01] Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Great. So let’s start off with a definition. When we’re talking about wellbeing. What exactly do you mean with that? Ah, that’s a very good question and a very tricky question as well. I think the main point is that wellbeing differs from being happy, important as it is or from being healthy.
Important as that is, or being safe, uh, having proper infrastructure and other aspects of life that we all need to have. I think it’s beyond the, what we would like to have. It is an additional layer to that, but I’d say that wellbeing is having what you need in different life domains that every person needs, and also attaining the possibility to prosper.
So it’s having those basic things that you’d need in life, but also having possibilities to prosper. So it’s more than just being healthy. Isn’t that how you could say that? Absolutely. I mean, how many people are. Perfectly healthy, but not happy or do not have a job or, which is extremely important for wellbeing, to give one example or feel that something in their lives is not going as they had planned.
It’s becoming, I think more and more common knowledge that health is only one aspect of wellbeing. Probably most people would agree that being well is something that is very important to oneself personally to the family and so on and so forth. But why do you say that this is actually a wider topic for society?
It is important for governments and it is also important for businesses. Why should businesses even care about how well someone is. We’ve come a long way from thinking that we understand everything. Let’s start with that. Yeah. I mean, we used to have indicators or proxies or ways of understanding the market that are becoming.
More and more. I don’t know if I dare to say that you relevant, but if you aspire as a strategy only to increase growth for your company, but you neglect to think about the wellbeing of your employees, you have a problem. And if as a country you aspire for higher GDP, gross domestic product, and you neglect to think about how that GDP spreads across different populations, how.
It spreads across health and education, and again, infrastructure and safety and other aspects of life, which are important for everybody. Then you have a very big problem. And when looking at policies, I mean, look at these sandinistian countries. I think they are. A wonderful example for countries who acknowledged to start with that.
The fixation on economic growth could be harmful because as every fixation, it’s only a fraction of what is really important in life. And so they’re a great example of countries who said, yes, economic growth is wonderful. It’s a great strategy position, but it’s not everything. Wellbeing is everything. So it’s how we spread that economic growth across the nation and et cetera, et cetera.
And that, and that’s just one example from the policy sphere. I think that we see more and more of wellbeing strategy towards different markets. You gave this long introduction and I, and I’m going to add one layer to it. I recently joined a company named Ment.io and it has a product and the product is a discussion platform.
It’s an AI platform that reads discussions and gives you smart analytics. It reads discussions, and it gives you smart analytics to make better decisions. Now, how does wellbeing fall into that picture? Every product that we see nowadays. Needs to or is already considering your wellbeing as the customer.
It’s not even employees anymore. It has moved from policy to strategy towards employees towards, let’s think about the customer in these terms. It’s not just about what they buy. It’s about whether what they buy serves their wellbeing. So that’s a lot of information in capsulated into one answer, but it’s just to give you the, uh, the gist of things, I guess.
Matthias Catón: [00:06:23] Yes, thank you very much. We’ll break it up for listeners a little bit more in the course of this podcast. Before we get there, I want to move onto something a bit different because I like to have like the personal motivation of people. So why are you so interested in this? Topic and wellbeing. And how did you originally get involved in it?
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:06:41] When I started studying, I somehow knew I wanted to study political science and I somehow knew that the thing that is most fascinating for me is how do we know that society is progressing? How do we know what progress is. I was sitting in different classes on ideologies. It all started from ideologies.
And I heard these fascinating topics, and I was reading marks, um, and I was reading other philosophers who wrote about the perfect or the utopian future that you could get to if you. Would only do things right. And they all seemed like lovely stories to me, but there was such a huge gap between these beautiful stories and how they rolled in reality.
Think of the Soviet union. It was anything but. The Marxist vision. And it’s the same for fascism. And it’s the same for liberalism. None of them rolled out to be what the original thinkers of these philosophy had had in mind. And so it really bothered me. And so I found myself delving deeper and deeper into, okay, so how do we know if we’re headed in the right direction towards a utopia or towards a complete disaster?
How do we know? And I found myself. I’m in a journey with lots and lots of other fascinating, really smart people from around the world, busy with, especially with policy, especially with policy issues of how do we know that the country is actually going where we wanted it to go. Um. So for me, it started in academia, and I think it’s, it’s kind of a reflection of how it rolled out across the world.
So it turns out to be that it starts with academia, with scholars who ask very big questions, um, quality of life questions, well being, questions within philosophy, within psychology, within sociology. Um, economics was kind of lagging behind, but it was all. Asking these questions and then it moved to the realm of policy.
So I moved with it to the realm of policy, working with the OCD and with other scholars around the world. And since then it had moved to strategy and to corporates. But yeah, I think for me it’s always about how do we know that we’re doing better, that that’s the gist of it, really. Let’s talk a little bit about the sphere of public policy, because I think there, the topic of wellbeing has been.
Discuss the or is being discussed for quite some time. It’s maybe a bit, you were in the world of business, so I’ve got to ask you the question that always comes up now. How is this any better than traditional measures? Let’s touch us. GDP per capita, for example, or others and aren’t they? In the end, very much correlated in the sense that more GDP means better wellbeing so that we don’t really need any other indicators and so on and so forth.
Matthias Catón: [00:09:34] What, what do you say to these kinds of criticisms that I usually. Any sort of discussion about wellbeing? Well, I’ll start with the, I’ll start with the short answer, which is GDP doesn’t always correlate with other good measures. So we see how the United States is life expectancy rates are actually decreasing or actually in a worse state than it used to be.
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:09:58] Um, it’s a recent development, but it is happening because the investment of what GDP is bringing is not being spread across the health system in a way that keeps life expectancy in its best, best state, and even growing. We see it in health, but we also see it in other things as well. I mean, there are two aspects to criticisms regarding the GDP.
One is the GDP doesn’t really count what it’s supposed to count. Even in that area, it’s very problematic. So it counts. Everything that we buy. It doesn’t care whether I buy something that is positive for me and is increasing my wellbeing or that is negative for me. I don’t know if I have to buy water because the water in the tap are not good enough, then that’s good for the GDP.
It’s very bad for me and not to mention crime that is very positive for the GDP. It’s very bad for people’s wellbeing. And so on and so forth. The second type of argument is that how can we only look at money as if it’s the only thing that tells us something about our lives? There’s something seriously wrong with that perception because it’s not correlated with everything that we care about.
It doesn’t care at all. Whether I spend time with my children. And I could have so much money and wore it from day to night and never see my kids. And so how does the GDP in that way indicates anything about my wellbeing?
Matthias Catón: [00:11:25] Isn’t that in the end, a matter of personal choice, for example? I mean, any individual could theoretically decide whether they want to earn more money or spend more time with their kid. People might, yeah. Want to get filthy rich. Others may want to spend more time with kids and friends and family.
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:11:42] I wish it was, I don’t think we live in an ecosystem that enables so much choice. There isn’t as much choice as we’d like to think. The new liberal conception of, I decide my own faith and I decide, I mean, it even goes as far as you can be happy regardless of the circumstances you live in now.
That’s. True to some extent. I mean, you could live in a extreme poverty and still be happy. It is possible. I think we would all agree it’s not advisable. And so the circumstances in which you live determine quite a lot of how you conduct yourself in life. And there’s a whole industry of happiness trying to argue towards the amount of choice that we have within.
How happy we are, but we cannot neglect, and this is a policy question from head to toe. We cannot neglect the circumstances in which we live in. And it’s very difficult to get to a position where you can choose your job and you could choose your hours that you spend at the office or you spend at home.
Most people have to go to work because they have to earn money, and if they don’t supply, let’s say the. And amount of hours necessary for that job, they will be fired. And so no, it’s not just their own personal choice. Sorry to be so blunt, but yeah, there’s something to it that is extremely, uh, I feel very passionately about it, obviously.
Matthias Catón: [00:13:15] No, that’s okay. Absolutely. I think that’s, that’s great to hear that you’re so passionate about it. So the, the concept of wellbeing has spread and it is also part of the sustainable development goals and figures there in one of the goals. Could you explain what is meant by that in the context of the sustainability development goals.
Which by the way, for those listeners who are not familiar with, they are just set of goals set by the international community through the United nations on how we should develop until, what’s the year, the deadline for the girl, supposedly 2030 and they’re the successes of the millennium development goals.
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:13:52] I think it’s quite obvious that they are the successors of the millennium development goals because the wellbeing part of this, of the SDGs, sustainable development goals is very. Narrow. I mean, I love the SDGs. I think they’re great. I think that once all nations and all and the market will adopt such goals, it will.
I mean, they have, but I mean practically make, um, more and more substantial steps towards them, then that would be wonderful. But in the true, the prison of wellbeing, I’d say two goals. Correlate or correspond to wellbeing. One is the third, the third goal, which is about health and wellbeing. In that sense, I mean with within that goal, it is very much focused on health.
So it uses lots of objective indicators that are correlated, that are measuring health. It’s not even correlated. It’s measured. It’s measuring health. And the other goal that might be. Related to a wellbeing is SDG 17 which talks about partnerships. We’d, how do we as, as a community, as a global community, aspire to achieve the goals.
And so within that goal, you can hear nuances of. This is something that we’re doing together towards the wellbeing of the planet, the people of the planet, and all partners. These are, these are great goals that if we can meet them in a timely manner because time is pressing, right? Uh, if we can meet them in a timely manner, then, then that should make a world of difference. But it’s very, but in the sense of wellbeing, it is more limited.
Matthias Catón: [00:15:36] What, what other concepts. I think the most famous is probably the one used by the government of potassium, the gross national happiness indicator, and I think New Zealand also has something called the living standards framework or those broader concepts. What do they entail?
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:15:53] I love the New Zealand initiative. I love what they do. I recommend following the prime minister. She is a real inspiration. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the fact that she’s a female because there’s a, there’s a really nice, uh, there’s a really nice Ted’s by the first minister of Scotland, which is also taking part in the wellbeing initiatives.
And she mentions the fact that all three prime ministers. That are engaged with wellbeing initiatives are females, and she gives it to the audience to decide whether that has anything to do with it. I think it’s an interesting detail. Um, the revolutionary thing that New Zealand had done was to attach wellbeing indicators to its budget, to the national budget.
And that is a true revolution because by, I mean, in the last. 10 years. Most of the countries around the world have adopted wellbeing indicators. However, there’s a huge distance between adopting indicators and actually using them for the purposes of policy. And another step forward is using them as part of the national budget.
And so the fact that New Zealand is doing that. I think that’s the, that’s the great revelation regarding Bhutan. I love the, the Bhutanese index, and I think it’s really interesting to note that it’s called the national gross happiness, but it is actually a wellbeing index. It does not only look at personal happiness of the individual or of the nation or the assembly, you know, the aggregation of the nation.
It actually looks at wellbeing. It’s health and safety at community reward other aspects that are all wellbeing. So I think this also highlights the fact that there’s a confusion very often and very understandable one between happiness. That words that is supposed to encapsulate everything for us. But actually it’s a word that refers to the mental state.
And wellbeing, which refers to the mental States and physical States and every other aspect, including happiness and including health into our wellbeing.
Matthias Catón: [00:17:59] But it’s been very slow, I think the adaption, right. So I mean, Wu-Tang has been doing it for a while now, but they are, after all, no disrespect for, they’re tiny and to rather remote country.
New Zealand is also pretty remote. It’s a bit bigger, but they are the only ones, at least that I’m aware of, who have rolled something like this out on the national scale. Why is there this reluctancy? Why is it so difficult to move it from the aspirational sphere of international organizations and lofty goals to the practical or more practical world of really public policy in a country.
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:18:34] I love that question and I wonder if I want to answer it in a politically correct way or in the honest way,
Matthias Catón: [00:18:42] I’d rather have you go for the honors way that makes them offer interesting podcasts.
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:18:46] I think economists are the last to adopt these new initiatives and they have tremendous influence on how policies are being carried out.
And so. I’ll quote you, no disrespect to two economists, but I think it’s a, it’s a, it’s a huge obstacle in the sense that it’s really difficult for the economic theories to accept that there is such a huge failure in the market in the sense that the proxies of the use might not be the right ones. So that’s one way of answering this question.
The second way of answering this question, which is again, very honest. Indicates towards or points at change agents. I think that in the past 10 years, yes, it has been a slow change, but it has been a slow change because the OCD. And other international organizations have acted as a network and network of networks for this adaptation that needs to take place.
And different agents have been performing, have been doing their thing in their places to make that change happen. And it’s slow and it takes a while and it goes against every instinct of the traditional. Economists, but it is, but I think it is happening. Okay. That’s good to hear that these efforts of many years in organizations such as the UCD are finally slowly paying some fruits and let’s hope that maybe more women as heads of governments will push this forward.
Matthias Catón: [00:20:22] Although I have to say as a counter example of we’ve had a female head of government for quite some time, and I’m not sure. If she is truly interested in these kinds of topics. So maybe it’s not only about gender.
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:20:34] Then in the end, I will say on her behalf that she has been leading some efforts on, uh, public participation in the definition of what wellbeing is.
Angela Merkel has done some extensive work. I mean, she had people in her office, but sitting in her office doing work on how do people in Germany. Define wellbeing, which is an incredibly important step towards getting good indicators to reflect that wellbeing.
Matthias Catón: [00:21:03] Okay, that’s good to hear. I’m glad to hear that Germany is also involved in these kinds of initiatives.
Now, we’ve talked a little bit about way wellbeing is obviously important to you as an individual, and that’s, that makes sense. We’ve talked about how this is important in the realm of public policy. Let’s now move on a little bit to the world of business, and that I think is. Much newer in the terms of the, of the concept and uh, yeah.
Let me start again with a very open question. Why on earth should a business care about wellbeing as a concept? Why is that important?
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:21:36] Businesses would like sustainability and they would like to grow. They all like these two aspects. They don’t want to go home tomorrow and they don’t want to stay as they are in order to do that.
If you look at the money. You miss out only at the money. Yeah. You miss out on too many aspects that are crucial for your bridge, for your business. So let’s take the most obvious one, which is employees. Employees might get high salaries, but every research shows that it’s, it’s not what makes them like their jobs or perform them to the best possible way.
And so if you’d like your employees to be more engaged, and every. Every manager needs their employees to be engaged. So if you’d like your employees to be more engaged, then you have to consider their wellbeing. It’s not just about the money that they take home. It’s not just about their salaries. Um, so that’s one aspect of it.
The second aspect of it is that more and more companies are learning to realize that if they neglect aspects such as. The wellbeing of the communities where they work, then they have a problem. So let’s take for instance, construction companies or retail or really any other business that you’d think of that has factories that are located in different places around the world.
Every once in a while we hear of a company which has a great brand name that suddenly. Suddenly news are exposed that this company, again, which has great reputation, is not taking care of the people working in its factories or the communities around its factories, and that the working conditions and the conditions that the pollution that the factories, uh, produce or, or any other aspect of it that is related to the wellbeing of the people.
Uh, in the communities around these areas, these are all aspects that any company that needs to keep its brand name going has to consider. So it’s not even a question of, do you want to be kindhearted and consider the wellbeing of people? It is about, would you like your business to be sustainable and profitable?
And I, I will add to that, that it is a huge challenge. It’s a huge challenge in the. Practical level of what do you do with an employee that you feel should be working harder, but they say they have difficulties at home and they can’t give their best at the moment. What do you do when everybody’s looking at the bottom line, your profit bottom line.
Why would you add an extra. Uh, what would you spend more money on making the, the factory more environmental friendly? These are all dilemmas that the corporate world is facing every day. Uh, but what I’m arguing is, and it’s not just me, it’s, uh, it’s becoming slowly but becoming more and more common knowledge that it’s the only way to succeed these days.
Matthias Catón: [00:24:44] Wellbeing by its very nature probably is. A bit fluffy, vague concept with probably different definitions. If you ask two people, you will get two different definitions. I know that you are. Passionate about wellbeing, but you’re also passionate about data. You are very hard driven, and I’m very analytical person.
Maybe, I don’t know, can I call you a geek or something like that. So you, you deal with data and decision making and all these kinds of things. How do they fit together? How can I, as a business leader, for example, translate this warm and fluffy feel good, a weld of wellbeing. I’m exaggerating, not a little bit into the realm of business, which after all is driven by KPIs and mostly numerical indicators that also allow me to measure whether or not I’m making progress because it’s one thing being convinced about something and trying to make an impact or have an impact.
Yeah. In the sphere of your influence in other is actually knowing whether or not you are making progress well beyond beautiful brochures that you can put out or nice statements. How can you put this into the heart weld of numbers and data?
Anat Itay-Sarig: [00:26:01] Thank you so much for this question and yes, I warmly embrace being a.
Wellbeing geek, uh, and then indicators geek. Definitely. Um, I think that we measure all the time. We measure so many things, and so many of what we measure is staying irrelevant to the decision making at the end of the process. So think about the big data, right? These definitions of, we measure everything.
We don’t really measure everything. You’re absolutely right. That even if we measure lots and lots of things, at the end of the day, we use KPIs. At the end of the day, we use a very small number of indicators that leads our strategy. I believe that in the next years we will see more and more wellbeing consultants advising different entities, different organizations on what type of indicators they have to activate.
Or even assemble, right? Even even collect in order to make better decisions. Let’s think of of the, of the market. The consumer worlds, right? So think of Netflix, which is, to me a very interesting example. It collects data about everything that you do when using Netflix, right? It looks at what you watch. It looks at what you hesitated.
To watch. It looks at what you quit in the middle, right? And it takes decisions according to that. Everything around us into market becomes more and more personalized in that matter in that manner, because it matters to people that the objects and the people and the entities around them will see them.
We’ll acknowledge their wellbeing. Now we have more and more data on these areas on everything that we do. I mean, Google knows everything that I do, whether I like it or not. Right? The thing is that it doesn’t use that type of data to help me increase my wellbeing. Yet I thin