Mobilities for Wellbeing: Hedonism or Eudaimonism?


Contemporary lives are very much dependent on movement. People, things, information and ideas are on a constant move. In his Mobilities book, John Urry (2007) said, ‘it sometimes seems as if all the world is on the move’ (p. 3). So, can you imagine if the world stopped moving? What would be the implications of such a prospect for people and societies? This chapter aims to unpack the diverse and complex interconnections between Mobilities' and wellbeing in cities. More specifically, it aims to contribute to emerging debates on the ways we can transform mobility systems in cities without compromising people’s current levels and experiences of wellbeing and quality of life in cities.

There is no doubt: there is an increasing number of people living in cities. The more people live in cities, the more cities are transformed into places of constant movement. And, the more cities are transformed into places of constant movement, the more they become key to people’s experiences of wellbeing and quality of life (Amin & Thirft, 2002; Shelter & Urry, 2006). They can host, facilitate as well as impede our movement and contribute to the production of both mobilities and immobilities that are key to our experiences of a ‘good life’ in cities (O’Neil, 2006; Urry, 2007). However, the more cities become places of constant movement, the greater the need for fuelling movements, the more energy is depleted and the more carbon emissions are produced (Sims et al., 2014). Addressing this double-sided effect of movement is a great societal challenge: how can we transform our current mobility patterns towards a more sustainable direction without compromising our experiences of the ‘good life’ in cities? This chapter aims to address this question. However, by doing so, it also raises the questions: what do we mean by ‘good life’? And, how does this link to the idea of mobilities (and immobilities) in cities?

There are increasing number of studies that underline the interlinkages between mobilities and wellbeing (Nordbakke & Schwanen, 2014; Ziegler & Schwanen, 2011). However, as will be discussed in this chapter, most of them are based on a narrow, mostly quantitative approach to wellbeing and mobilities, mainly reduced to analyses of travel satisfaction. This chapter opens up to a more multifaceted analysis that considers both hedonic/individual and eudaimonic/so-cial approaches to wellbeing (Christie & Nash, 1998; Nussbaum, 2000; O’Neil, 2006; Sayer, 2004) in order to explore Mobilities for wellbeing in cities. It starts by providing a critical overview of the different conceptualisations of wellbeing and their use in existing research on mobility and transport. It then focusses on our research for the Liveable Cities programme in order to offer an analysis that helps us understand mobility practices not only as a means towards wellbeing through the accomplishment of other social practices of wellbeing, but also as a practice of wellbeing itself. Through such analysis, I discuss the more blurred and complex intersections between hedonic and eudaimonic, individual and social wellbeing, and suggest that only if we develop a more holistic approach to wellbeing will we be able to re-design mobility systems in ways that can contribute to the pursuit and delivery of wellbeing in cities.

Mobilities and Wellbeing: A Critical Overview

Wellbeing: A Contested Concept

No doubt, wellbeing is a contested concept. It is a broad term that has been gaining prominence in government policy and academic circles (e.g. Marks & Thompson, 2008; Reid & Hunter, 2011; Waldron, 2010). However, its meaning can vary. As Galloway et al. (2006) put it, ‘what is considered “the good life” varies between individuals, and between societies and cultures’ (p. 28).

The historical roots of wellbeing can be found in the philosophical debate concerning what the ‘good life’ means, linked also to ideas of a ‘good society’. A distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to wellbeing has been key in this debate.

On the one hand, following a utilitarian logic to wellbeing, hedonic approaches underline the significance of happiness or pleasure as the key criterion for a person’s wellbeing through the satisfaction of their own preferences and desires (Diener, 2009). Contemporary ‘consumer societies’ are a manifestation of such a logic in which wellbeing is expected to be pursued through increased personal wealth and material consumption (O’Neil, 2006). In this context, an individualistic logic becomes prominent: wellbeing is narrowly perceived as the property of an individual that can be pursued only through personal life satisfaction (Bauman, 2000). However, a calculative rationality also prevails (Weber, 1978), in which wellbeing turns into a measurable unit reduced to indicators, including money, income and commodities.

Such calculative logic is also evident in the distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ wellbeing (Phillips, 2006; Rapley, 2003; Ringen, 1995). According to Hird (2003), objective dimensions of wellbeing are the quantifiable material and social attributes (e.g. income, education and health status), whereas the subjective dimensions of wellbeing are based on people’s personal evaluations of their lives, their thoughts and feelings about their quality of life. The first are widely used among policy makers and professionals interested in social welfare and health, whereas the second is principally developed by psychologists and economists to evaluate individual life satisfaction and happiness (Dolan et al., 2006; Reid & Hunter, 2011). Despite their differences, both dimensions share a quantitative understanding of wellbeing, usually translated into a number of indicators that are set and defined a priori by ‘experts’ in the field (Nordbakke & Schwanen, 2014).

Aristotle’s concept of ‘eudaimonia’ provides the grounds for an alternative conceptualisation of ‘wellbeing’ beyond individual happiness and personal satisfaction. In this context, wellbeing is achieved through a purposeful public engagement, contributing to the building of a ‘good society’ (Bruni & Porta, 2005; O’Neill, 1993). Although it can still focus on the individual as an agent of public participation, as opposed to the hedonic framework, it is more than a property of an individual; wellbeing is both conceptualised and achieved within the context of the society. As Bruni and Porta (2005) put it, it is a ‘relational’ concept through which human flourishing arises as people function and interact within society — for example, through participation in civil life and friendships. This eudaimonic framework also offers a different, more qualitative and bottom-up understanding of wellbeing: a wellbeing that is not reduced to a number of indicators but is based on people’s descriptive narratives and perceptions and experiences of a ‘good life’. This ‘good life’ is perceived beyond an individualistic, consumerist logic, by situating an individual’s human flourishing in ‘the social’: their active participation, engagement and contribution to society.

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