The pursuit of happiness

With the spending cuts biting, a stagnant housing market, rising unemployment, and an Austerity Britain struggling to get back on its feet in a hard winter of snow and swine flu, you might think it’s not the best time to be asking people how happy they are. Yet this is exactly what David Cameron proposes to do. Starting in April 2011 the Office for National Statistics will be rolling out a new measure of well-being for the nation (http://www.ons.gov.uk/about/consultations/measuring-national-well-being/)[external website].

Why does the Government want to know how happy we all are?

 "The contention is that just as we can create the climate for business to thrive - by cutting taxes, slashing red tape and so on - so we can create a climate in this country that is more family-friendly and more conducive to the good life." (my emphasis)
Create a climate, David?

"Of course you can't legislate for fulfilment or satisfaction, but I do believe government has the power to help improve wellbeing."
(David Cameron talks to Channel 4 news, 25th November 2010).

As an economic psychologist (the European version of a behavioural economist) I have to declare an interest here. A brief look at the news and internet coverage of these ideas throws up a whole world of conspiracy theories about the Government trying to brainwash us. People don’t like to feel manipulated or they’ll dig their heels in and rebel – it’s our natural state. So we have to ask hard questions about Government’s motivation in relation to this concept, how they will implement it and more importantly, what might be the undesired, unintended consequences.

However, putting my natural scepticism to one side for the moment what I think we should concentrate on and celebrate is the fact that the Government has finally cottoned on to an idea which psychologists have been trying to tell the prevailing economists for decades, and which wise people have known for centuries: that happiness is based not just on money but on living a more engaged and giving life. At last, we have a government in touch with the Dalai Lama’s own sentiments:

“It’s my fundamental conviction that compassion constitutes a basic aspect of our nature as well as being the foundation of our happiness”
(Dalai Lama tweeting, yes tweeting at 09:50 on 11th January 2011)

This is amazing. As a policy stance, increasing happiness is a good place to start, and should create a virtuous circle of increased giving, compassion and engagement which increases happiness, etc. The Charities Aid Foundation’s groundbreaking recent report The World Giving Index found that:

“Happy nations are more likely to give than wealthy nations: The link between the giving of money and happiness is stronger (a coefficient of 0.69) than the link between the giving of money and the GDP of a nation (0.58).”
(http://www.cafonline.org/pdf/WorldGivingIndex28092010Print.pdf)

So how will the government go about making Britain a happier place? Well, firstly they have employed a behavioural economist, Dr David Halpern, to head up the Cabinet Office’s ‘Behavioural Insight Unit’. Halpern, a colleague of Robert Putnam (of previous social capital ideas) bases much of his current thought on Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein’s ‘Nudge Theory’, which literally proposes that people respond best when nudged in the right direction.

See one summary of these “psychological tricks” to get an idea of how they’re playing out in the press so far: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nudge-nudge-wink-wink-how-the-government-wants-to-change-the-way-we-think-2174655.html [external website].

As a scientist I have to make the point that basing an entire approach to changing a nation’s outlook on one self-help book may well prove a recipe for disaster! While nudge theory and others like it are useful they are no silver bullet and need to be implemented alongside other policies and practices. However, credit to them for taking what I believe is a brave and clever step.

When Colonial America rejected British rule, it affirmed that every man, woman and child deserves equal opportunity and the freedom to pursue happiness. Now and again it’s good to remind ourselves of this, and perhaps we also need a nudge in the right direction?

This post was originally published by DSC e-news in 2011.