Happiness and politics

Happiness and politics

David Walker explains how boosting wellbeing became a government priority

Tuesday July 3, 2007


Pensioners are being offered the Department of Work and Pensions’ “opportunity age” programme.

A tornado is sweeping through the social sciences as narrow, money-focused ways of thinking about progress give way to wider appraisals of wellbeing.

Politicians and policy makers, too, are rethinking what government can and should do to make people feel more positive about themselves and their non-economic prospects. Money and economic growth matter, of course, but so do the many non-material aspects of life and, it is being argued, government may need to rethink its priorities.

Ironically, just as Gordon Brown takes over as prime minister – on the back of a record as chancellor centred on economic achievement – there’s a swing towards revaluing non-economic factors in several departments. In the areas of communities and local government, for instance, there’s a new agenda to do with “place shaping” that goes well beyond the conventional attempt by councils to promote economic growth and jobs. Now efforts are being made to lift expectations and stimulate the public’s imagination.

How much income they have affects the happiness of pensioners and older citizens, but so does a sense they can still learn, can still do things – as well as their interrelationship with family and society at large. Government can provide opportunities: indeed, the Department of Work and Pensions is trying out a new “opportunity age” programme.

The Department of Health has framed its model for what primary care trusts should “commission” in terms of wellbeing, hoping for a move away from exclusive focus on medical services for patients to broader ideas of what makes for good health, in the sense of leading a contented, fulfilling life.

Wellbeing policies for schools put more emphasis than before on eradicating bullying and inculcating a sense that all children can attain, a new thinking that underpins the growth of personal records of achievement alongside formal examinations.

An influential figure in recent years has been the Labour peer Lord Richard Layard, whose book Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, urged much more spending on helping people out of mental health problems.

It’s not just people on the left of centre who are attracted by the new ideas. The Conservative housing spokesman, Michael Gove, says public services have to show more “emotional intelligence” in dealing with people and the party leader, David Cameron, argues wellbeing should be the object of public policy.

The new thinking was on display last week at a three-day conference at the University of Bath, showcasing research commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, especially on how wellbeing should recondition policies for development in Africa, Asia and South America.

Professor Allister McGregor, the research leader, says focusing on “human flourishing” brings much-needed attention to how much power people exercise, rather than where they fit in the economy.

Conventional economics tends to focus on individuals and ignore how wellbeing often stems from relationships within families and within communities. Economists and accountants put work down as a cost, something you do to earn money. The new approach is to see work as a potential source of fulfilment, even of happiness. You can even be in debt but remain relatively content – if you trust the people who lent you the money, for example family members or friends.

Only 10% of the causes of happiness have to do with where we fit in the social order, according to new psychological studies. What matters much more is “mindset”, according to Professor Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge. She reports that what matters is the belief that what you do can affect your position: for example, believing you are destined to do badly at school (which many children do) is linked to unhappiness.

Governments should – it was argued – seek to alleviate miserableness. One of Labour’s problems has been the mismatch between increased spending on public services and public perceptions that health, education and other services are getting worse, not better. This may have to do with the sense of gloom imparted by the Blairite reformers, who implied things were in a dire state.

The media, too, Professor Huppert, argues are a prime cause of unhappiness on the part of the public: cynical and unremittingly negative reporting helps generate dark and low moods which, research shows, impact on how we behave.

ê_Ôš David Walker is editor of Public magazine