Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST30D1: Health, Wealth and Happiness: Investigating Standards of Living and Wellbeing in the Past

Department: History

HIST30D1: Health, Wealth and Happiness: Investigating Standards of Living and Wellbeing in the Past

Type Open Level 3 Credits 20 Availability Not available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • A pass mark in at least ONE level 2 module in History


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To introduce students to the meaning of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in past societies
  • To explore the historical significance of standards of living and wellbeing
  • To explore and evaluate the ways in which historians have attempted to define and measure living standards and wellbeing


  • A notion of the ‘good life’, wellbeing or happiness has been central to societies throughout history. One of the paradoxes of history is that economic growth has often failed to improve wellbeing for all: the wealth of nations has not always meant the health of nations, and citizens of the richest countries frequently report lower levels of happiness than those living in poorer countries. Nowadays, the test for any government is whether or not it can improve the lives of its citizens, be that in terms of income, health, or other measures of well-being. The United Nations regularly ranks countries in terms of the Human Development Index, devised to capture how much scope citizens of those countries have to develop what Amartya Sen has termed ‘capabilities’, and several countries, including the UK, have appointed so-called ‘happiness tsars’, tasked with measuring levels of wellbeing and suggesting ways to improve it. Wellbeing is an elusive concept, both to define and measure; many would argue that measuring it is impossible. Among the many aspects highlighted by social scientists, including historians, are nutrition, health, education, income, material possessions, levels of inequality but also more elusive aspects, such as freedom, trust and security. This module will focus on how historians have tried to define and measure wellbeing, and how they have approached the question of why economic growth has often failed to improve wellbeing. We will look at a range of concepts and methodologies by which historians have tried to measure standards of living or wellbeing, such as real wages, the study of heights and weights, ownership of goods, human development, capabilities and the poverty line. We will ask what it meant in the past to be ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ and how such categories have shifted over time. Is poverty an absolute or a relative concept? These different measures will be analysed in lectures, while seminars will look at a number of historical case studies in which these measures have been applied. The focus on concepts and methodology means that the course will range widely both geographically and chronologically, but a key case study will the long-running and unresolved debate over whether the British industrial revolution improved standards of living, and if not, why not. Other case studies may include the controversial debate over the wellbeing of slaves on US plantations, the impact of the First World War on the health of infants and children, whether there was a consumer revolution in early modern Europe and standards of living in the later Middle Ages.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • An appreciation of the complexity of defining standards of living and wellbeing in the past.
  • An understanding of the significance of being ’rich’ and ’poor’ in a wide range of geographical and chronological contexts.
  • An in-depth understanding of standards of living and wellbeing in specific historical contexts.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Challenging students’ assumptions about the past and reflecting on the nature of the discipline (and, where appropriate, interdisciplinarity) at an advanced level
  • Appreciating how historical knowledge is produced, what forms it takes, and the purposes it serves
  • Reflecting on students’ own historical consciousness and practice.
Key Skills:
  • The ability to employ sophisticated reading skills to gather, sift, process, synthesise and critically evaluate information from a variety of sources (print, digital, material, aural, visual, audio-visual etc.)
  • The ability to communicate ideas and information orally and in writing, devise and sustain coherent and cogent arguments
  • The ability to write and think under pressure, manage time and work to deadlines
  • The ability to make effective use of information and communications technology.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a combination of the following teaching methods:
  • lectures to set the foundations for further study and to provide the basis for the acquisition of subject specific knowledge. Lectures provide a broad framework which defines individual module content, introducing students to themes, debates and interpretations. In this environment, students are given the opportunity to develop skills in listening, selective note-taking and reflection;
  • seminars to allow students to present and critically reflect upon the acquired subject-specific knowledge, methodologies and theories, and to identify and debate a range of issues and differing opinions. The seminar is the forum in which students are given the opportunity to communicate ideas, jointly exploring themes and arguments. Seminars are structured to develop understanding and designed to maximise student participation related to prior independent preparation. Seminars give students the opportunity to develop oral communication skills, encourage critical and tolerant approaches to reasoned argument and historical discussion, build the students' ability to marshal historical evidence, and facilitate the development of the ability to summarise historical arguments, think in a rapidly changing environment and communicate in a persuasive and articulate manner, whilst recognising the value of working with others and, occasionally, towards shared goals.
  • Assessment:
  • Examinations test students' ability to work under pressure under timed conditions, to prepare for examinations and direct their own programme of revision and learning, and develop key time management skills. The examination gives students the opportunity to develop relevant life skills such as the ability to produce coherent, reasoned and supported arguments under pressure. Students will be examined on subject specific knowledge. In addition, seen Examinations (with pre-released paper) are intended to enable Level 3 students to produce more considered and reflective work;
  • Summative essays remain a central component of assessment in history, due to the integrative high-order skills they develop. Essays allow students the opportunity to recognise, represent and critically reflect upon ideas, concepts and problems; students can demonstrate awareness of, and the ability to use and evaluate, a diverse range of resources and identify, represent and debate a range of subject-specific issues and opinions. Through the essay, students can synthesise information, adopt critical appraisals and develop reasoned argument based on individual research; they should be able to communicate ideas in writing, with clarity and coherence; and to show the ability to integrate and critically assess material from a wide range of sources.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 21 Weekly in terms 1, 2 and 3 1 hour 21
Seminars 7 4 in Term 1; 3 in Term 2 1 hour 7
Preparation and Reading 172
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay - not including bibliography and footnotes 3000 words 100%
Component: Examination Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Seen examination [paper to be made available not less than seventy-two hours before the start of the examination] 2 hours 100%

Formative Assessment:

Preparation for and in seminars. The summative essay is also preparation for the final exam.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University