On Monday lunchtime I attended a fascinating fringe looking at the concept of “happiness” and its applicability to the political process.
Julia Clark, IPSOS Mori
Chaired by David Boyle, the fringe began with Julia Clark from IPSOS Mori outlining the conclusions they had gathered on this topic from their public opinion research. She pointed to how the concept of happiness is moving up the public agenda and that so called “soft measures” are becoming the new territory of politicians, witness David Cameron’s recent advocacy of “nudge” theories, and that this is reflecting a concern with quality of life issues. She said that 70-80% of the public across Europe believe that public policy should shift towards less consumerist measures.
Happiness according to the research, she said, correlates with class and wealth, the more economically secure you are the happier you are, but across all classes happiness has over time been decreasing. The Danes and the Swedes are the happiest in Europe – the UK comes in 6th.
There appears to be a statistical correlation between happiness and the following things:
- How much gardening people do
- How much sport & physical activity people do
- Church attendance
- If people are married or cohabiting
- The more qualifications people have
- Having better health
And there is a correlation between being unhappy and:
- Being divorced
- Being in middle age
- Having teenagers in your home
- And being poorer than friends, neighbours or your peer group, in other words having less than the people around you
In a similar manner to the previous fringe involving research from IPSOS Mori, she made the point that people hold several contradictory ideas at once. In the UK we have become less concerned about the issue of equality, but we are concerned about the gap between the rich and the poor. However, we don’t want the Government to intervene to do something about it.
She did say that people are very concerned about the idea of fairness in public services. We are concerned about the issue of the “post code lottery”. We worry about people getting a free ride. We want our public services to be fair to everyone.
What does this mean for politicians who want to promote happiness? She suggested that when talking about public services they should talk more about real live examples of fairness. That they should encourage marriage and give support to families, especially with teenagers. They should concentrate on anti social behaviour. Oh, and they should also promote gardening.
Stuart Wallace, NEF
The next speaker was Stuart Wallace, the Executive Director of the New Economics Foundation. He raised two issues; why should politicians be interested and what can they do about it. In talking about why politicians should be interested he focused on the issue that we so often measure the wrong things. We measure our society using purely economic and financial measures such as GDP which do not reflect all the aspects of live that concern us as human beings. He quoted from a speech made by Robert Kennedy which is worth repeating;
“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product……counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…..Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
He made the point that politicians talking about well-being – about having a better life – is a critical message to use when attempting to tackle the ecological crisis we face.
He was uncomfortable with the term “happiness” saying that the NEF prefers to use the term well-being. We should be concerned with what Aristotle calls Eudaimonia or the flourishing life.
In talking about what politicians can do about promoting happiness he made the point that politicians can’t make people happy, but they can create the conditions for happiness. Some possible measures they should look at could be;
- investing in early years and parenting
- incentives to reclaim time
- education that promotes flourishing such as involvement in sport, art and music
- in the health service make more emphasis on prevention
- discourage materialism and promote authentic advertising
- tackle inequality
But the critical thing was to measure it! NEF is doing work on how that can be done.
Finally, making reference to the work of Oliver James, he asked why is it that the more capitalistic countries have higher rates of mental health.
Jo Swinson MP
The final speaker was Jo Swinson MP who has been doing work on promoting this issue. She spoke about how we are richer but are not necessarily happier. She also talked about the particular problem we have with the happiness of our children. In the audience was the Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, who later in the discussion spoke powerfully about this issue and reinforced the points made by Jo.
She then pointed out that achieving a better quality of life is actually part of the official aim of the Treasury, but in their actions it is not taken seriously. We need to get away from the mind set that GDP is everything. She talked about how commuting, the length of the travel for work, adds to GDP but makes us unhappy. Something that was received with recognition by the audience!
In looking at how politicians should approach this issue she highlighted the potential pitfalls. We cannot force people to be happy. So this agenda is a challenge for liberals. However, people are happier when they have more control over their lives and when society has a greater level of sustainability and this fits with a Liberal Democrat approach.
She warned that the current economic crisis could push all this off the agenda. However, she pointed out that unsecured debt is something which reduces a persons sense of well-being. If public policy had paid more attention to effects on happiness of the role of credit in the economy we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we are in now.
I am a happiness sceptic. I have written before about how happiness cannot be a human right.
But I fully accept that if we want to create a sustainable society we have to look at quality of life issues. I much prefer the term well-being to happiness. The use of the term happiness makes this important agenda appear flaky and leads to confusion. We need to talk about a wider concept of fulfilment, much closer to the Aristotelian concept of a flourishing life.
As liberals we have to be careful not to advocate, and must opposed those who do, measures designed to impose greater well-being on others. But we should work to remove the obstacles that are in the way of people who wish to develop fulfilling lives. We need to change the social and economic structures that prevent individuals from developing their full potential. We need to give people the liberty to pursue happiness.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.