New quest in British politics: public happiness

Once upon a time, the hot-button issue for politicians in rich countries was "the economy, stupid."

But after decades in which Western nations have gotten richer but not necessarily happier, a new performance indicator – harder to measure and more elusive to deliver – is beginning to emerge.

Some simply call it happiness. The more scientific term is subjective well-being (SWB), a composite of factors including income, health, environment, relationships with friends and family, education, recreation, and faith.

Economists on both sides of the Atlantic believe they are getting good at measuring it, and now the political class in Britain is beginning to take it seriously.

"There has been no upward trend in happiness despite the fact that we are richer, healthier, and have longer holidays." says Lord Richard Layard, an economist and advisor to the British government on happiness. "That is the challenge to government policy and to our own lifestyle."

According to happiness rankings by the United Nations, European Union (EU), and magazines like the Economist, the top 5 is normally dominated by the likes of Norway, Iceland, Australia, Ireland, Denmark, and Switzerland. G-7 countries fare less well; Europe's richest troika – Britain, France, and Germany – languish.

British politicians are starting to ask why. In Britain, surveys consistently show that people are no happier than they were 50 years ago, though incomes have tripled since the 1950s.

A poll last year found the proportion of people saying they are "very happy" had fallen to 36 percent today from 52 percent in 1957. Four in five people said government's prime objective should be the "greatest happiness" not the "greatest wealth."

For David Cameron, leader of the Conservative opposition, improving society's sense of well-being is the central political challenge of the era.

"Making people happier is more important than making people wealthier," says his spokesman, George Eustice. "Quality of life matters more than quantity of money; people have more money than ever before but quality of life is worse, and they get less time to spend with their families." Marriage, family, environmental care, and work-life balance are all ideas Mr. Cameron espouses.

'Department of happiness'

Tony Blair meanwhile has set up a government team, sometimes dubbed the "Department of Happiness" to study how to make people happier. An initial report, which collated international research, came up with some obvious findings, and one or two surprising ones.

"A lot of it is common sense," says lead author Prof. Paul Dolan of Imperial College London. "What do you think is going to make you happy? Spending time with friends and family."

Thus, marriage and good quality relationships are strongly linked to happiness, according to Professor Dolan's report. So are good health, exercise, going for walks, faith (of any denomination), and even casual interactions like talking to a neighbor. But living alone, sickness, indebtedness, and joblessness were all associated with poorer well-being, as were caring for a dependent and commuting.

As for income, it makes one happy up to a point, but there is a diminishing return the higher the income – particularly given the sacrifices that must be made for bigger salaries. A Pew Research poll done in the US in 2005 notes that 50 percent of families with incomes of $150,000 or more say they're "very happy." By comparison, only 23 percent of families making $20,000 or less report being "very happy." But Lord Layard says that more income is not necessarily associated with more happiness. He notes that even if your income is rising, but others are getting richer faster, that can undermine personal happiness.

"Many of us spend more time in work, more time traveling to and from work – all the things that don't give us pleasure – and we're trading off the things that do," notes Dolan.

This appears particularly true in Britain – which has the longest working week of any EU country and some of the worst commuter conditions – and in countries like Japan, rich but work-obsessed.

'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of ...'

The notion of politicians trying to make private individuals happy is not new. The 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that the aim of government should be to bring as much happiness to as many people as possible. Even the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 points out the inalienable rights of man including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Critics protest that studying happiness is too subjective to formulate universal policy. But Lord Layard says that even if government cannot always deliver happiness, it can often do much to avert misery. He cites research showing that 1 in 6 Britons suffer from depression or anxiety. Government should, he argues, earmark greater resources to help mitigate this malaise.

Much unhappiness, he adds, stems from childhood; and so Britain is about to pilot a program introduced in America by US psychologist Martin Seligmann, whose work teaching 11-year-olds about how to handle negativity and focus on personal strengths has reportedly had an impact on antisocial behavior.

Philosophers are less sure that happiness should be the preserve of government. Some argue that much of the malaise in Western society is due to higher expectations (we demand more of ourselves), peer pressure (others have raised the bar of success), and the need for recognition as well as wealth: All factors mostly beyond the reach of mere politicians.

Bestselling British author Alain de Botton's book, "Status Anxiety," argues that the quest for material well-being ignores the human need for recognition and the precipitous rise in expectations.

"Traditionally, when people referred to wanting to be happy, they spoke in terms of wanting to be rich," he says. "As societies have become richer but not necessarily happier, people are now increasingly making the distinction between wealth and happiness. The two clearly have an intimate but not exclusive relationship."

AC Grayling, another British philosopher, adds that as horizons have enlarged, there are "new kinds of striving" so that people are just as far from their goals as they were 50 or even 500 years ago. "Modernity has raised expectations," he says. "The reason people don't score more highly is that standards have risen and risen again." He says workplaces where people are praised results in a happiness "quite independent to the amount they are being paid.... But it's the kind of thing you can't make laws about," he adds. "You can't legislate for feelings."

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