Should governments & public policy makers be interested in happiness?

Should governments & public policy makers be interested in happiness?

The greatest gift that we possess

Government does health and wealth, sure, but it is now being charged with looking after our inward state. How well can it do wellbeing, asks David Walker

Friday October 5, 2007

Where do you start and where stop appraising whether policy makes us happier? Photograph: Corbis

The declaration of American independence, drawing on a bright Enlightenment idea, declared happiness to be a human right. But what has government got to do with wellbeing? Should the state do less, which became the American ideal, or intervene more to remedy the causes of unhappiness?

That’s the way the pendulum has been swinging. Interest is growing in the complex (and often non-monetary) sources of human wellbeing, including a sustainable relationship with the physical environment. On the table lies the radical suggestion that the government might make us happier by stopping us consuming. How we measure progress is under fire. Professor Allister McGregor, leader of a wellbeing research team at Bath University, says “human flourishing” brings much-needed attention to how much power people exercise, rather than where they fit in the economy.

A tornado is sweeping through the social sciences as narrow, money-focused ways of thinking about progress give way to wider appraisals of being well and happy. Politicians and policy makers, too, are rethinking what government can do to make people feel more positive.

Ironically, just as Gordon Brown took over – 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 Department for 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 into efforts to lift expectations and stimulate the public’s imagination. The Audit Commission wants it to figure in assessment of councils’ performance.

A high-level group has just been appointed by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on “mental capital and wellbeing”. The wellbeing of children was a principal objective of the 2004 act which integrated services for them. Wellbeing suffuses programmes from the Department for International Development.

The Big Lottery Fund recently announced a wellbeing programme, which seemed to embrace the entirety of physical and mental health in the north-east. In practice it may mean grants for mental health projects, though the causes of ill-being could be traced deep into policy for housing, transport, employment and, more controversially still, the distribution of income and wealth.

It’s always going to be easier to define a specific programme – say, additional cognitive behavioural therapy services, which have been conclusively shown to help – than apply this big and insidious notion: where do you start and where stop appraising whether policy makes us happier. So, recently, the health minister Ivan Lewis expanded provision of this talking therapy. The evidence suggests it can be highly beneficial for people in difficulties, preventing them slipping into joblessness or hopelessness. But taking wellbeing seriously might imply a much sharper look at what the rest of the NHS does, subverting the balance between primary care and what hospitals do.

Government papers now routinely refer to health and wellbeing as twin objectives, at least admitting the possibility that spending money on doctors doesn’t necessarily lead to enhanced wellbeing. In schools as in social care, policy makers seem to be struggling with quality of life and whether its pursuit leads to different policies or more of the same. Taking measures against school bullying, say, or promoting independent living for older people can be justified on all sorts of grounds, as well as “wellbeing”.

Conventional economics tends to focus on individuals and ignore how wellbeing often stems from relationships, within both families and 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 be in debt but still 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 it’s the belief that what you do can affect your position that matters: believing you are destined to do badly at school, say, is linked to unhappiness.

The idea that the purpose of government is to tend to the happiness of citizens is far from new – it underpins Jeremy Bentham’s late 18th century principle of utility. What is new is the belief that governments can and ought to get inside our heads, reducing stress. At the same time the way “progress” is measured is being reworked and the single index of expansion in gross domestic product replaced by much more generous measures of wellbeing – the promotion of which is now an English local authority duty.

Wellbeing is at once an utterly banal and a revolutionary idea. Of course there has to be more to life, and public policy, than money. But imagine how differently the recent sub-national review would have read if a round notion of wellbeing had been substituted for economic growth.

It’s been a while since the American academic Richard Easterlin found that happiness doesn’t rise as people’s incomes rise, above a certain threshold. These days there is a veritable science of happiness drawing on the work of such psychologists as Barry Schwartz, who has shown how more choices – over schools or hospitals, say – can make us miserable. Most of the work deals in aggregates. No one can definitively say what causes happiness on the individual level, though there is plenty of evidence associating unhappiness with lack of income (below a certain threshold), unemployment, stress, divorce or lack of social capital.

Richard Layard, the former London School of Economics professor and Labour peer, has been arguing a politically ambitious proposition, that raising taxes can make people feel better about the world and themselves. There is evidence – disputed – which links wellbeing with inequality, raising questions about how far the state should redistribute income. Thinktanks, notably the New Economics Foundation with its Centre for Wellbeing, say development has to be multi-dimensional and you can’t exclude consumption of non-renewable resources from ideas about well–being. Internationally, through the OECD and Unesco, efforts are being made to revise the way we measure development. The UN’s human development index seeks to incorporate measures of health and education as well as a decent standard of living in economic terms – the emerging patterns are not always the same as those shown in league tables of GDP. Accountancy bodies are struggling with ‘sustainability accounting”, in which an organisational decision is assessed for its consistency with ecological and social sustainability.

It’s not just the left who are attracted by the new ideas. The Tory housing spokesman Michael Gove says public services have to show more “emotional intelligence” in dealing with people and Tory leader David Cameron argues wellbeing should be the object of public policy. But some rightwing thinktanks have started to chip away at wellbeing as a recipe for cutting people’s freedom of action. A pamph-let from the Institute of Economic Affairs complained that happiness measures were unreliable and didn’t relate either to income inequality or movements in clinically defined depression; at least GDP was securely measurable. The challenge ahead is enormous. The intellectual basis of the national accounts, let alone other official numbers, is being called into question. What if providing services doesn’t, in and of itself, make people feel any happier? Shouldn’t spending be directed to what does enhance wellbeing? What if, when it comes to it, people seem to prefer acquisitive pursuit of material gains to the ‘social wage” and resist measures to alter their work-life balance?

Further reading

Health, work and wellbeing: rising to the public sector attendance management challenge

Acas policy papers,

Happiness, Economics and Public Policy, Institute of Economic Affairs

Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod, uk

Happiness: Lessons from a new science

Richard Layard, Penguin

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

Barry Schwartz, HarperCollins

The European Happy Planet Index: An index of carbon efficiency and wellbeing in the EU

New Economics Foundation,

ê_Ôš This article appears in the new issue of the Guardian’s Public magazine