Lib Dems need to distance themselves from Cameron’s ‘happiness agenda': The making of the politics of fulfilment
11 August 2011 1 Comment
The development of the UK’s Happiness Index has completed its consultation phase which may produce some interesting results for Government policy. The Lib Dems need to understand it and outline our ‘differentiation’ strategy on the issue as it may have a larger impact than many people believe.
While Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick believes that
There’s nothing intrinsically left or rightwing about wellbeing. But it is important for the government to measure it
Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, wants “social cost/benefit analysis” to be offered by civil servants in the future. In other words the impact of a policy on ‘happiness’. The problem with this is that depending on your politics depends on how you achieve happiness. Some people are aware of the structural inequalities that exist in society and some people are not. “Get on your bike” was the advice Norman Tebbit gave to millions of unemployed people in the 80s and now Theresa Villiers is telling sacked call-centre workers in Newcastle to relocate to Mumbai. Where you stand affects your view, and how you complete your social cost/benefit analysis will be affected by this, and this will indeed be intrinsically left or rightwing.
Before we allow the use of such data to manipulate policy agendas we need to be sure that it is a useful concept. It may have been a good piece of political posturing by David Cameron in 2005 to suggest it and it may have attracted some Lib Dem leaning voters, but the whole issue is not very well understood.
Happiness is generally considered to be comprised of at least three components; namely, more positive affect, less negative affect, and life satisfaction. People generally consider happiness to be a good thing and so makes for a good political slogan. However, when one seeks the goal of happiness it can lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of one‘s evaluation (i.e. disappointment and discontent) is incompatible with achieving one‘s goal (i.e. happiness). This leads to the fact that the more people strive for happiness, the more likely it is that they will become disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.
In one experimental study they examined whether valuing happiness causes less happiness. The results showed that participants who were induced to value happiness felt worse when they could not attribute their relative lack of happiness to external circumstances. Essentially, the pursuit of happiness may lead to maladaptive outcomes because it sets people up for disappointment.
Another study found that the more people value happiness, the lonelier they feel on a daily basis (assessed with daily diaries over two weeks). And another study demonstrated that leading people to value happiness more resulted in greater loneliness and social disconnect, as measured by self-reports and a hormonal index (decreased progesterone). These findings suggest that wanting to be happy can not only decrease people‘s well-being, it can make them lonely as well. This has led some to propose that
happiness is not always good. It is possible to have too much happiness, to experience happiness in the wrong time, pursue happiness in the wrong ways, and experience the wrong types of happiness. In such cases, happiness may not be adaptive and might even lead to harmful consequences.
Surely we should be questioning the entire endeavour? Suggesting that people should be happier than they are and that the Government is going to do something about making people happier is tantamount to getting involved in the internal psychological process of individuals, which is a particularly nasty strand of authoritarianism. Not only that, it will set the government up to fail.
It would be better for the Lib Dems to be more candid about the scope of Government. The ONS themselves in their public consultation state that the things that matter to people are health, relationships, work and the environment as well as education and training.
That sounds a lot like that which Political Parties focus on anyway! Rather than suggesting that the government should be in the business of happiness promotion, perhaps we should be more real about what we think Governments should be there for. Providing an environment where everyone can fulfil their potential – the politics of fulfilment.