Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Increasing Happiness

'Action for Happiness' is a new organisation with members in over 60 countries, though their total numbers amount to a less-than-impressive 4,500. Its website is a mixture of policy manifesto and homily on personal well-being. The latter includes a list of 'Daily Actions' - 'be mindful', 'be kind' and 'be grateful'. A video clip by a famous psychologist tells you to remember the good things which happened in the day just before you go to sleep.

It would be easy to dismiss this stuff with derision, but it has the backing of David Cameron, and is in line with his political vision - that well-being is more significant than consumption, and that government should promote happiness rather than income per head. And the decision to put four questions on happiness in this year's official Household Survey was masterminded by Matthew Taylor, former policy advisor to Tony Blair, and now head of the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, Taylor pointed out that research on Subjective Well-being (SWB) is broadly supportive of redistributive policies (countries like Sweden and Denmark with high taxes and benefits top the global league tables for happiness), but also of traditional family and community relationships (close personal ties and the sense of belonging are, along with good health and job satisfaction, the biggest factors in SWB). The questions he had put in the survey were on life-satisfaction, anxiety level and the feeling of meaningful activity. He pointed out that highly competitive routes to economic growth, such as the one set by the USA, produce less happiness among populations.

The Action for Happiness home page urges people to join a group to advance well-being. Clearly this is in line with Cameron's Big Society, and reflects the research finding that activists are happier than passive consumers. The Conservative Party manifesto of 2010 declared the aim of getting all citizens involved in local associations, and Cameron spoke of a 'culture shift' towards collective action which would transform our society.

We have already seen that the Big Society does not readily embrace student protesters or anarchist activists. Perhaps even more problematic is the issue of how it creates the large-scale solidarities needed to fund something like a universal National Care Service, or an adequate Educational Maintenance Allowance.

There is also an obvious tension between the market-mindedness of the coalition in relation to the NHS and schools, and the community-mindedness of the Big Society rhetoric. It is hard to see how a cultural transformation in favour of collective action, co-operation and mutuality can be achieved within a collective landscape designed to offer choices and incentives for individuals seeking advantage over others.

Individualism is a deep-seated feature of British society, political and social, and its origins lie far back in our history. Rivalry and conflict can arise through many forms of competition for status and resources; they are found in certain cultures worldwide, at stages of development from hunter-gatherer to post-communist transition.

There is a story about the Archangel Michael appearing in the flat of a Hungarian man to tell him that God would grant him anything he desired, on one condition: whatever he chose, his neighbour would get two of the same. The man clutched his head, rocking and moaning for several minutes in deep distress. Eventually he replied, 'Put out one of my eyes'.

We are fortunate in our civil liberties and democratic rights, but it is easy to overlook the collective struggles and sacrifices which brought them into existence. Sustainable well-being requires a framework in which people are free to run their own lives, but also empowered to hold authorities of all kinds to account. It is far from clear whether we are moving in the direction of real power-sharing and accountability.

No comments:

Post a Comment