Dumbing down the idea of happiness
Under the guise of promoting ‘wellbeing’, the government and advocacy groups are indulging in lifestyle modification.
There’s no other way of putting this: we simply don’t know what we’re doing. For too long we, as a society, have valued the wrong things. We’ve pursued the wrong goals. We’ve worshipped the wrong idols. That was until a few enlightened souls tore the veil from our eyes and, in the words of one their number, whispered, ‘money isn’t everything’.
This soothsayer of the blindingly obvious was, of course, former prime minister Tony Blair. Since those words were uttered back in 1999, the idea that people’s happiness, our wellbeing, consists of more than cash has proved as appealing to Britain’s political class as a life raft does to a drowning man. There have been ‘life satisfaction’ seminars at Whitehall; there have been reports and reviews on the role happiness should play in policy-making; and, this month, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) finally started compiling data for David Cameron’s so-called happiness index as part of its integrated household survey.
As the political class’s obsession with what makes us happy has grown, so those willing to tell it what makes us happy have been emboldened. A case in point is the membership organisation Action for Happiness which was launched yesterday. ‘Members of the movement make a simple pledge’, its website claims: ‘to try to create more happiness’. Don’t be fooled by the ingenuity of the statement. It is founded not by school kids, but by Geoff Mulgan, a former policy director under Tony Blair, Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington School and Blair’s biographer, and Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons From a New Science and, since his peerage in 2000, also known as Baron Layard of Highgate.
You’d think, given such a weight of experience in the science of happiness, that AfH would feature insights galore. Yet what is striking is just how breathtakingly banal it all is. Apparently, friendships will make us happier; crippling self-criticism is not conducive to a happy-go-lucky persona; and finding a meaning and purpose to our lives can be beneficial. For those advocating solitary, self-loathing, existential nihilism, AfH’s tips may indeed prove revelatory, but for the rest of us they’re about as insightful as mud.
In fact, the banality of insight that accompanies happiness or wellbeing research is one of its defining features. Alongside AfH, this week also saw the release of the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index. Among its plethora of the face-slappingly self-evident were the discoveries that people enjoying their work are more likely to be happier and that people with children deemed themselves both emotionally healthy but quite stressed, too. To be fair, unlike AfH’s belief that money is not good, Gallup Healthways were prepared to acknowledge that income is at least important. In fact, you won’t be shocked to learn that people on lower incomes tend be less satisfied with city life and more worried about being able to afford food, than those with higher incomes.
No doubt the ONS ‘happiness index’ will be just as unsurprising. But then the main problem with all this pseudo-knowledge is not that it is a restatement of the obvious. Rather the problem is that it provides the political class, aided and abetted by a well-funded expert caste, with the basis to claim to know what’s best for us. Every instance of ‘unhappiness’ becomes proof that we don’t know what is in our own interests. Each individual’s misery becomes an opportunity for a spot of psychometric evalution.
Speaking at the launch of Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index, David Halpern, a former policy advisor to Blair, expressed this view of our helplessness quite clearly: ‘We’re not very good at determining what would be best for our wellbeing.’ That Halpern should think that we lack an adequate happiness ‘satnav’ is hardly surprising: he currently heads up Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Unit at Downing Street, a micro-organisation dedicated to working out how best to ‘nudge’ us in the direction of our best interests, be it a veg-heavy diet or low-alcohol nights out.
AfH, too, seems to know which way our happiness lies. ‘We are bringing together like-minded people from all walks of life’, announces its website, ‘drawing on the latest scientific research and backed by leading experts from the fields of psychology, education, economics, social innovation and beyond’. Research and expertise here are like bats with which to beat us into line. We may think we know what is in our best interests, but we’ll never know as much as AfH.
Yet by saying that it knows best, however, the happiness-pursuing state, followed by the gravy train of happiness-advocacy groups, deprives us of the very freedom to decide for ourselves what makes us happy. The end result it likely to be misery all round.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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