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I am an Australian researcher and writer. My work explores issues to do with progress and wellbeing, and whether life is getting better or worse. It includes: measures of progress; the relationships between economic growth, quality of life and ecological sustainability; the social and cultural determinants of health and happiness; visions of the future; and young people and their world.

My work challenges several scientific orthodoxies, including that Western liberal democracies are the best model for human progress and development, that existing indicators measure real progress, and that young people in the West have never been healthier. I have also argued that cultures are an underestimated social determinant of health, and co-authored a national index of subjective wellbeing, which is being widely used by researchers around the world.

I hold a bachelor’s degree with honors in zoology and a master’s degree in the history, philosophy and sociology of science and technology. I have worked as a science journalist, strategic analyst, government adviser, and university researcher.

My research approach – transdisciplinary synthesis – is unusual. I range across many fields of knowledge to develop new, common frameworks of understanding. Synthesis strives for coherence in the overall conceptual picture rather than precision in the empirical detail.

My work has been brought together in a book, Well & Good: Morality, Meaning and Happiness (Text, 2004, 2005), available on my website. I have also edited or co-edited and contributed to three academic books: The Social Origins of Health and Wellbeing (CUP, 2001), Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better? (CSIRO, 1998) and Challenge to Change: Australia in 2020 (CSIRO, 1995).

I have published about 180 journal papers, book chapters, monographs and specialist magazine articles, and written many articles and essays for leading newspapers and for broadcast on national radio. I have addressed a wide range of audiences, both scientific and public, and have served on many boards, committees and advisory groups. In 2013, I was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the community as a researcher, analyst and commentator on population health and well-being in Australia.

Before settling into a career (and family life) in my 30s, I worked as a laborer and professional fisherman, and travelled abroad for two years through Africa, Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia.  My travels had a profound influence on my life and work, allowing me to effectively step outside Western culture, and see more clearly its defining myths, assumptions and values.

Whether life is getting better or worse is one of the most profound questions of our times.

The answer may seem obvious, or the question so broad as to be meaningless. But there are good reasons why we should take it seriously.

The question reflects a coherence in our lives, socially and personally, that needs greater acknowledgment. How we answer the question bears on almost every issue on the public and political agenda. However, public and scholarly debate rarely reflects this connectedness.

In fragmenting our consideration of life into separate issues, policies, portfolios, sectors and disciplines, we dodge the hard questions of how all these things interact with each other to shape the life we lead and the societies we live in.

A central tenet of modern culture is the belief in progress, the idea that life should get better. Is this the case? If our answer is ‘yes’, we can continue to assume that human history is on the right trajectory, and needs nothing more than periodic course corrections – the task of governments.

If the answer is ‘no’, then the most fundamental assumptions about our way of life – assumptions that have long been broadly agreed and taken for granted – must be re-assessed. The task we face goes far beyond the adjustment of policy levers by government; it demands an open and spirited debate about how we are to live and what matters in our lives.

The answer to the question is not as obvious as it may seem. I approach it from a perspective of human health, wellbeing and happiness. I emphasise the importance of culture, values and stories, and challenge some of our most powerful beliefs about progress, including that we are getting healthier because we are living longer, that the ‘west is the best’ when it comes to human development, and that past life was wretched.

It is not clear, for example, that greater wealth, health and happiness – as we measure them – constitute a better life. This is especially so in developed nations (on which I focus), but it is also increasingly relevant to the developing world as globalization and modernization continue apace.

And however elusive a definitive answer might be, the question is still worth posing because it generates other questions about life today that would otherwise not be asked.