"It's not just the left who are attracted by the new ideas. The Tory housing spokesman Michael Gove says public services have to show more "emotional intelligence" in dealing with people and Tory leader David Cameron argues wellbeing should be the object of public policy. But some rightwing thinktanks have started to chip away at wellbeing as a recipe for cutting people's freedom of action. A pamph-let from the Institute of Economic Affairs complained that happiness measures were unreliable and didn't relate either to income inequality or movements in clinically defined depression; at least GDP was securely measurable. The challenge ahead is enormous.
In his article in the SocietyGuardian.co.uk, David Walker asks whether happiness a legitimate aim for public services Special Reports Guardian Unlimited Politics. "Government does health and wealth, sure, but it is now being charged with looking after our inward state. How well can it do wellbeing, asks David Walker.
He proceeds to write:
"The declaration of American independence, drawing on a bright Enlightenment idea, declared happiness to be a human right. But what has government got to do with wellbeing? Should the state do less, which became the American ideal, or intervene more to remedy the causes of unhappiness?"
Oops. One of the first things we learn in school should be how to read the words that are written. One of the next things we learn about the American Declaration of Independence is that what was/is guaranteed is not "happiness," but "the pursuit of happiness."
Big difference there.
This interesting article proceeds to take a swing at many big issues, admitting that the challenge ahead is enormous. Tidbits:
--Interest is growing in the complex (and often non-monetary) sources of human wellbeing, including a sustainable relationship with the physical environment.
--On the table lies the radical suggestion that the government might make us happier by stopping us consuming. How we measure progress is under fire. Professor Allister McGregor, leader of a wellbeing research team at Bath University, says "human flourishing" brings much-needed attention to how much power people exercise, rather than where they fit in the economy.
--A tornado is sweeping through the social sciences as narrow, money-focused ways of thinking about progress give way to wider appraisals of being well and happy. Politicians and policy makers, too, are rethinking what government can do to make people feel more positive.
--A high-level group has just been appointed by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on "mental capital and wellbeing".
--The Big Lottery Fund recently announced a wellbeing programme, which seemed to embrace the entirety of physical and mental health in the north-east. In practice it may mean grants for mental health projects, though the causes of ill-being could be traced deep into policy for housing, transport, employment and, more controversially still, the distribution of income and wealth.
--Where do you start and where stop appraising whether policy makes us happier.
--...[R]ecently, the health minister Ivan Lewis expanded provision of this talking therapy. The evidence suggests it can be highly beneficial for people in difficulties, preventing them slipping into joblessness or hopelessness. But taking wellbeing seriously might imply a much sharper look at what the rest of the NHS does, subverting the balance between primary care and what hospitals do.
--Government papers now routinely refer to health and wellbeing as twin objectives, at least admitting the possibility that spending money on doctors doesn't necessarily lead to enhanced wellbeing.
--Only 10% of the causes of happiness have to do with where we fit in the social order, according to new psychological studies. What matters much more is "mindset", according to Professor Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge. She reports that it's the belief that what you do can affect your position that matters: believing you are destined to do badly at school, say, is linked to unhappiness.
--The idea that the purpose of government is to tend to the happiness of citizens is far from new - it underpins Jeremy Bentham's late 18th century principle of utility. What is new is the belief that governments can and ought to get inside our heads, reducing stress.
--Wellbeing is at once an utterly banal and a revolutionary idea. Of course there has to be more to life, and public policy, than money. But imagine how differently the recent sub-national review would have read if a round notion of wellbeing had been substituted for economic growth. --It's been a while since the American academic Richard Easterlin found that happiness doesn't rise as people's incomes rise, above a certain threshold.
--These days there is a veritable science of happiness drawing on the work of such psychologists as Barry Schwartz, who has shown how more choices - over schools or hospitals, say - can make us miserable. Most of the work deals in aggregates. No one can definitively say what causes happiness on the individual level, though there is plenty of evidence associating unhappiness with lack of income (below a certain threshold), unemployment, stress, divorce or lack of social capital.
--Richard Layard, the former London School of Economics professor and Labour peer, has been arguing a politically ambitious proposition, that raising taxes can make people feel better about the world and themselves.
Just as aside, I have recently been out of the US, and found something that added greatly to my sense of happiness and wellbeing. I found it made me feel happy to have more "personal freedom." To be able to get on a train or streetcar with open windows, no seat belts, no signs about where you could stand and what you could do .. to walk out on a boulder 8,000 ft. above ground that had no chained wall or fenceing or any instructional signs or liability signs .. to be told there were helmets on the table for the ATV ride and left to use my own judgment about my safety. It's one of the things my friends who travel mention a lot. Personal freedom. Is that the "right" to do something stupid if you want to, or don't know? Absolutely. If you hang out an open train window, you could conceivably fall out, and more conceivably get whacked in the head or arm by some object you are passing. It was up to the individual.
There was also a noticeable lack of "train rage" or "streetcar rage" among the riders.
Share your thoughts - firstname.lastname@example.org .
What is happiness? What guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness? What do you think?