Lib Dems need to distance themselves from Cameron’s ‘happiness agenda': The making of the politics of fulfilment

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.

Lib Dems should distance themselves from the ‘happiness’ agenda and start making liberalism more relevant

Come 2015 the government will have gone some way to establish a happiness index in an attempt to shift the focus of quality of life from a purely economic one. Many people are getting involved in this with the launch of the Action for Happiness which brings LSE economists and government advisors together in an attempt to increase national happiness. But when 2015 comes will this be considered useful by the public. Will people vote for it? Will the concept have progressed liberalism?

While I have seen this as a way to help the Lib Dems, I have serious problems with this concept. What do we do to make ourselves happy? Are such activities sustainable and would they continue to make us happy if we continually did them? You may feel happy on holiday, but would you feel happy if you were always on holiday? Happiness is not something you can ‘get to’ by doing certain things. What makes you happy one minute does not necessarily make you happy the next. Happiness is not an end in itself and so is poor guide for policy development.

Happiness is more of a by-product of focusing on other things. Spending time with friends and family, doing a hobby, doing a job you like/love, or helping out in the community are not done because they make people ‘happy’. We have all felt unhappy at times doing any of these activities but we may continue to do them anyway. If the reason we did them was to feel happy, we would probably have given up on most of them (particularly knocking on doors campaigning). We do what we do for fundamentally different reasons and everyone has their own reasons. However, when looked into who are the happiest people they have generally been people who feel fulfilled in their lives.

Fulfilment would be a much more useful concept for politics and certainly more useful for liberals. Liberalism is about the values of liberty, equality and community. It seeks to give people the freedom to choose for themselves what is important to them and to involve themselves in their community as they see fit and develop their talents to the full. This fits very well into the concept of fulfilment that Covey has: To Live, Love, Learn, & Leave a Legacy.

This gives a much more useful concept to make liberalism relevant to people today. That we would look to help people live life how they want to, support their relationships, help families who need it, support people’s education at any age and to help them get involved in their community. The politics of fulfilment is a much more meaningful concept than that of happiness which will not help anyone and will only attract ridicule.

The Lib Dems should distance themselves from this happiness agenda and start talking about liberalism and personal fulfilment.

This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations

- George Bernard Shaw


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