International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property

Heritage and Wellbeing: What Constitutes a Good Life?

“The gross national product (...) measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

Heritage and Wellbeing: What Constitutes a Good Life?
Photo by: Belinda Fewings-Unsplash

For many years now, there has been growing recognition that the conservation of cultural heritage is not just about the preservation of material things, but rather about safeguarding and sharing heritage for the betterment of people’s lives and the environment. This implies a more proactive view of heritage as an instrument of positive change, and also reflects a wider geopolitical movement to promote sustainability and wellbeing. In this article, we explore the origins of this growing awareness, and the role of heritage within sustainable development and wellbeing, to ask how this connection might be made more evident, and what implications this might have for conservation.

The prevailing worldview that prosperity is synonymous with progress is changing. Economic measures such as GNP and GDP, adopted since the 1940s by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as a means to guage development, have been the focus of increasing criticism for many decades. And now 21st century challenges such as the climate crisis, mass migration, globalization, food insecurity, land degradation and more, are further deconstructing this belief. The global community is increasingly realizing that a development model based solely on financial enrichment does not guarantee improvements to living standards and at the same time is a serious threat to environmental stability. The current dominant metrics say little about how the benefits of economic growth are shared, and thereby fail to address inequality and other urgent social issues. In consequence, there are increasing calls for a more meaningful, holistic and sustainable development model that better reflects human needs and aspirations and is not limited to economic security alone.

The roots of these considerations go back at least as far as the eighteenth century and utilitarian thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, who in 1781 proposed the production of net happiness as the basis for determining the merits of any action.  However, it was work of economists such as Amartya Sen in the 1980s who redefined development in terms of what it enabled people to do. Sen’s “capabilities approach”, summarised in his own words as “the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kinds of lives they value – and have reason to value” has had significant impact, and is the basis of ongoing efforts to establish a new framework based on wellbeing.

This conscious shift is taking place all over the world. Many countries such as Bhutan, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany and Canada have already adopted alternative indicators for development that reflect not only economic but also social and environmental outcomes as a means to shape their policies and measure progress. In addition, the adoption of a larger set of markers to reflect wellbeing within official statistics provides a more nuanced understanding of local contexts, thus guiding more efficient and relevant policy-making that focuses on the aspects of life that citizens truly value. Similarly, international organisations have implemented programmes to measure and promote wellbeing. Initiatives such as the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program and the Better Life Index of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have already been launched.

However, wellbeing is more than a development model, it is about fundamental rights: its inclusion in legal conventions takes its roots in nothing less than the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Here the intrinsic connection between wellbeing and fundamental human rights is explicitly stated, and this linkage has been further reinforced by its integration within subsequent environmental and cultural rights law. Thus invested with a moral purpose, changing from a purely economic to a more holistic model of development is an ethic imperative that is inherently linked to the respect of human dignity.

What exactly is meant by “wellbeing”?

While often associated with human health, wellbeing is in fact a far more wide reaching concept, encompassing basic physical needs such as decent quality housing, nutrition, healthcare and freedom from violence and oppression, through to the requirements for each individual to be able to engage in society to their fullest capacity. The attainment of wellbeing is therefore the goal for all nations – not solely those with advanced economies. Put simply, ‘wellbeing’ is about individuals and the creation of an enabling environment that can holistically support their physical, mental, emotional, social, cultural, spiritual and economic needs, so that they can achieve their potential.

This holistic perspective also underpins the cross-cutting model of the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development – the conscious and effective implementation of which is fundamental for the wellbeing of not only current, but also future generations. Moreover, given the urgent need to address the global climate emergency, the imperative of sustainable development is clear: a universal and inclusive wellbeing for all members of the biosphere.

This vision seeks to enhance the aspects of life that people value the most, and in doing so lays the foundations for a different approach to governance. Since what matters is variable and context dependent, focussing on wellbeing implies a grassroots approach: i.e. people’s opinions must be taken into account. When applied to heritage, this approach demands decision-making processes that respect what is meaningful to people and their communities. This paradigm shift underscores the need for people centred approaches in heritage conservation and connects these to a wider global political movement.

Why is culture important for wellbeing?

Culture is the embodiment of the manifold customs, beliefs, and ways of doing that define human societies. Its core is knowledge, its legacy heritage. Culture and cultural heritage are therefore fundamental determinants of what makes life meaningful.

While there may be tacit recognition that culture contributes to wellbeing, from a policy point of view this consideration is still in its infancy. In this regard, the cultural sector is a long way behind other areas such as education and health – the fundamental importance of which for sustainable development and wellbeing are not questioned.

When culture is reduced to a recreational pastime, when we fail to recognise heritage as a way of life that links both livelihood and identity, opportunities to enhance meaning and value in our lives are lost. To address this oversight, the impact of culture on sustainable development and wellbeing needs to be more clearly articulated and evidenced, so that it is recognised by decision makers, integrated within policy and harnessed for the benefit of communities at large.

One of the core challenges however, is how to measure the impact of culture and heritage – especially when the existing frameworks for measuring benefit rely heavily on monetary measures. As a result, cultural heritage tends to be valued in terms of the financial benefits it triggers (e.g. tourism revenue), rather than nonmarket factors that may have a far more important impact on societies (e.g. social cohesion). This predicates a policy bias that in turn influences conservation and management practices. The increasing interest of governments for new tools of measurement that reflect nonmarket factors offers significant opportunities for more adequately reflecting the value of culture. In turn this could pave the way for the greater acknowledgement and strategic use of culture as a tool for development, beyond its economic potential.

Promoting wellbeing through heritage conservation

ICCROM’s vision of heritage conservation is founded on promoting effective people centred approaches as a means of ensuring inclusivity and diversity, so that heritage is able to contribute to people’s lives in ways that are meaningful to them. Fundamental to this is the view that local communities are the arbiters of what matters to them, and that they have a central voice in decision-making processes that affect their heritage. In this regard, ICCROM’s concept of placing people at the centre of heritage conservation is closely aligned with promoting sustainable development and wellbeing.

However more needs to be done to underscore this relationship and consciously orient conservation towards social impact.  Emphasising such outcomes as the ultimate goal of heritage conservation (i.e. beyond the preservation of the material past) is important to inspire professionals in the design of community-oriented projects and management systems that benefit people, especially those who are marginalised.

Sounds great, where’s the catch?

Although the concept of wellbeing has been around for a long time, and is widely used in social and economic research, a common consensus of its definition is lacking. Matters are further complicated by the divergence of values amongst communities. When comparing theoretical and empirical viewpoints from different countries, it can be challenging to reconcile the various interpretations of wellbeing and the way international institutions are applying this concept to local heritage issues.

In addition, despite receiving increasing government attention, wellbeing economics is still an emergent field. Nevertheless, there have been notable developments. In 2019 New Zealand became the first country to publicly announce the alignment of its budget to a national wellbeing framework. Significantly, within this cultural identity is included as one of the key domains of wellbeing. That said, this framework is specific to the cultural dynamics of New Zealand, and addresses the wellbeing of New Zealanders rather than people elsewhere. Therefore despite this welcome development, we are still a long way from a universally accepted vision of wellbeing and its connection to culture.

So how do we fill this gap?

To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to first define the meaning, application and measurement of wellbeing and its relationship to heritage. To do this a transdisciplinary approach is required, that draws from sectors outside cultural heritage to incorporate latest thinking regarding human development and wellbeing. In particular, research is needed into the ways we draw out and evidence heritage benefits, and how semantic language skills and practical tools can support the interaction between heritage professionals and local communities.

As a first step in this reflection, ICCROM will hold a workshop on Heritage, Sustainability and Wellbeing on the 16th-18th December 2019.  Drawing together thinkers from wellbeing economics, human rights legislation and heritage conservation practice, this event will seek to identify common language and concepts that can serve as a basis to support the recognition and sustainable use of heritage as a tool for wellbeing.

This work is part of the Tracking Trends project, an ICCROM research initiative launched in 2018 to examine core trends in heritage conservation. Its current focus is on heritage conservation and sustainable development, and in particular how the impacts of heritage are assessed and represented within indicator frameworks.


A conscious effort to connect the goals of heritage conservation with those of sustainability and wellbeing is needed. This in turn demands a close examination of how heritage is valued by civil society and its impacts measured by government. In view of the adage “what gets measured gets done”, it is clear that improved representation within national measurement frameworks is needed to highlight the value of heritage, and better integrate it within wider areas of public policy. This is essential for mainstreaming heritage within development planning, so that it can more fully play its part.


Alison Heritage
Heritage Science Officer, ICCROM

Ambre Tissot
Project assistant, Collections Unit

Bashobi Banerjee
ICCROM Intern, Knowledge and Communication Services