Cameron’s happiness index: counting smiley faces

The government’s plan to measure the nation’s emotional wellbeing marks an unhappy shift in the relationship between the state and people.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics UK

Not even in his wildest fantasies did the Indian guru Meher Baba, who coined the phrase ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, imagine that world leaders would one day be vying with one another to put his notions into practice by becoming the first government to monitor their nation’s level of happiness.

It has just been announced that Britain’s Lib-Con coalition government has asked the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to create a ‘happiness index’ that can measure the country’s state of wellbeing. However, the advocacy of happiness as the goal of policymaking is by no means confined to David Cameron’s government or party. In 2009, when New Labour was still in office, the ONS declared that one of its priorities was to cobble together a statistical instrument for measuring ‘national wellbeing and progress’. And back in 2002, prime minister Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit was already exploring the potential for promoting ‘happiness policies’ at a ‘life satisfaction seminar’ in Whitehall, after which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was set to work on a happiness index.

Happiness has become the latest ‘big idea’ to capture the attention of a political class which is otherwise running on empty. Of course, the idea is not so new. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who affectionately referred to himself as the ‘constructor of happiness’, also took a great interest in imaginatively inventing statistics to prove it. Pictures of smiling peasants attending to their chores, or sitting on their tractors with beaming faces, were frequently displayed by the propaganda machines of Nazi Germany and Enver Hoxha’s Albania, respectively.

However, there is a fundamental difference between Stalin and the current collection of happiness merchants. For better or worse (and it was always for the worse), Uncle Joe was entirely cynical about masquerading as the ‘constructor of happiness’. He was mass-producing pictures of smiley faces to distract attention from the destructive consequences of his terrible policies. In contrast, many of today’s political elites who are bereft of any ideas and projects have genuinely and desperately embraced happiness as their one big cause.

The promoters of global happiness as government policy see their cause as something of a moral crusade. Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics is the principal ideologue of the ‘science’ of happiness, a role that led to his appointment as a Labour member of the House of Lords, Baron Layard of Highgate.

Layard adopts an orientation that combines the tone of earnest mysticism and paternalistic moralism. ‘What we need is an educational revolution in which a central purpose of our schools becomes to help young people learn the secrets of the happy life and the happy society’, he declared in 2007. Can the Office for National Statistics really help Britain to unravel the ‘secrets of the happy life’? Layard is convinced that no stone should be left unturned in this quest to discover the secret of life. For him, what’s at stake is nothing less than the moral re-engineering of the nation. ‘Clearly I am talking about a movement of moral reform’, he wrote.

In a free society it is entirely legitimate for moral entrepreneurs and crusaders to advocate their schemes of moral reform. But should elected governments be in the business of instructing the public about the purpose of life and the meaning of contentment? Who made the prime minister philosopher king? Since when have politicians developed a privileged access to moral truths? Do we want our children to acquire a love of reading and knowledge of science and history – or the latest crackpot’s take on the ‘secrets of a happy life’?

The model of a government focused on a project of moral reform is antithetical to the liberal ideal of an open society, where government should be in the business of protecting people’s freedoms and implementing policies that provide the electorate with opportunities to make choices about how to lead their lives. Thus the US Constitution commits the people’s representatives to upholding ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, not to instructing the electorate as to what definition of happiness they should pursue.

In his famous lecture ‘Two Concepts of Freedom’, Isaiah Berlin warned about government projects aimed at securing objectives other than those that the people themselves have recognised and endorsed. He understood that once government arrogated for itself the responsibility for deciding the ends of people’s lives, then the capacity of people to exercise moral independence would be seriously compromised. History shows that moral crusaders invariably act on their conviction that they know better than you do what’s in your best interest.

The advocates of the happiness crusade possess a profound sense of contempt for the ideal of individual autonomy. Layard personifies the paternalistic social engineer who insists that there is a science of happiness but that its pursuit cannot be left to ordinary people. He effectively writes off mothers and fathers, insisting that whilst ‘parents are of course crucial’ the real business of happiness management ‘can only be done by the schools’. Why? Because ‘if we want to change the culture’, notes Layard, ‘the main organised institutions we have under social control are the schools’. That’s another way of saying that the authorities need to nudge aside independent adult society, so that they can get their hands on those easily impressionable young minds. The institutionalisation of ‘early years intervention’ policies in education indicates that such paternalistic fantasises about recruiting the young to an official happiness crusade are not far removed from the thinking of the political class.

Until now many schools have sought to reassure children and parents through a mandatory distribution of smiley faces everywhere from the classroom wall to the homework book. No doubt if the happiness brigade has its way, measuring the quantity of smiley faces will become one of the crucial indicators of the happiness index. And that’s about as close as these statistics will get to revealing the secret of a happy life.

Critics have drawn attention to the difficulty of defining happiness, never mind measuring it. But that’s not the point of the government’s exercise. The mere fact that happiness has become an object of official policymaking alters the relationship between government and public. If pursued to its logical conclusion, a project oriented towards the management of people’s emotions and internal life will lead to the further erosion of the line that separates our public lives from our private lives. That is why the performance of counting smiley faces is no joking matter.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics UK

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