Happiness is… learning to live with TINA

The politics of happiness encourages us to accept our lot, breathing life back into the patronising idea that you can be ‘poor but happy’.

Ashley Frawley

Topics Politics

Relatively poor people are at least as happy, if not happier, than those who are better off. That seems to be the message of two recent reports, one looking at happiness around the world, the other looking at wellbeing in the UK. But while ‘poor but happy’ seems a cliché that many are willing to embrace, the drive to emphasise happiness over wealth deserves more critical attention.

A recently released Gallup poll has placed some of the poorest countries of the world – including Panama, Paraguay and El Salvador – at the top of the happiness stakes. In November, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest update on the National Wellbeing programme. Not only have life-satisfaction scores remained ‘broadly stable’ in spite of the recession, but deprived areas seem to be home to some fairly happy people (provided they have trees to look at).

Those unfamiliar with the happiness agenda might be surprised at the huge impact it has had; it’s everywhere, from Oxfam to Coca Cola, from the World Bank to UK educational policy. Like the furore surrounding self-esteem in the 1990s, there has been a widespread push to affirm happiness’s importance. Almost every social ill has been said to be remediable through raising ‘subjective wellbeing’ or happiness levels.

Indeed, a 2012 report produced by the Children’s Society argued that ‘a low level of subjective wellbeing’ puts young people at risk of poor mental health, social isolation, likelihood of victimisation and involvement in ‘risky behaviours’. Richard Layard, the UK’s unofficial ‘happiness tsar’, has even claimed that unhappiness is Britain’s ‘worst social problem’.

But the official focus on happiness in recent years was not a response to growing unhappiness in society. In fact, according to happiness advocates themselves, nothing much has changed. And therein lies the ‘paradox’: despite ‘massive economic growth’, the proponents of the happiness agenda say, there has been no increase in happiness. For those unconvinced, graphs are often helpfully included, depicting a stagnating ‘happiness rate’ plotted against a steadily climbing GDP.

The conclusion frequently drawn, as the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon did last April, is that less attention should be paid to traditional monetary indicators of ‘so-called progress’, and more to what makes people (sustainably) happy. British prime minister David Cameron agrees, stating back in 2006 that ‘we have to remember what makes people happy, as well as what makes stock markets rise’. While this idea of shifting attention to ‘what really matters to people’ is often touted as radical, it is important to note that the modern happiness project has always been a top-down initiative. While existing as an idea within the establishment for decades, the politics of happiness was taken up by American positive psychologists in the late 1990s and was quickly embraced by individuals and groups closely connected with UK policymakers, who only then sought to enlist the approval of the general public.

The adage that money can’t buy happiness may seem daft as a guide for policymaking, but it’s been extraordinarily influential since the late 1990s. In addition to the high-profile introduction of an ONS initiative to add ‘wellbeing’ to its national accounts, the current UK government founded a Behavioural Insight Team, which advocates ‘nudging’ people into making decisions more conducive to happiness. A host of policies, from an increased emphasis on treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapy in mental health services to the introduction into the school curriculum of classes designed to foster ‘emotional wellbeing,’ have been justified through recourse to happiness expertise.

Cameron’s commitment to happiness upon taking office in 2010 was dismissed by some as a cover for government spending cuts. In fact, it was no mere political spin. The more uncomfortable question is why groups which should have been in opposition to the happiness agenda found themselves in agreement with it.

There are many reasons why happiness, thus conceived, was widely embraced. Most significantly, many implicitly accept Margaret Thatcher’s famous mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism (TINA). If we cannot hope to change society in real, material terms, then individual minds and behaviours become some of the few sites open to change. With the political outlook narrowed in this way, ideas like ‘rediscovering happiness’ as the ultimate goal of society can sound radical, utopian even. They also offer a way of bypassing uncertain political identities, connecting with people using the lowest common denominator. After all, who doesn’t want to be happy?

But constructing issues in such broadly agreeable terms makes it difficult to imagine how they might be challenged or opposed. Everyone seemingly agrees that ‘money can’t buy happiness’.

The problem with the politics of happiness is that it abstracts this emotion from individual and social experience, and makes it into a flat, measurable policy objective. I have no idea what the future holds, in the same way that no one in 1800, if they had been handed a ‘happiness survey’, would have rated themselves less happy in the expectation of modern innovations like access to electricity. Each generation finds happiness in accordance with the world they take for granted. As a measure of ‘progress’, happiness defaults to an affirmation of the present as the best of all possible worlds.

This has led some proponents of the happiness agenda to dismiss material progress as a ‘hedonic treadmill’; ‘happiness adapts’, they say, and we will not become any happier should we attain the material objects of our desires. Humanity’s extraordinary resilience and tendency to make the best of a bad situation is used as a justification for maintaining low horizons.

The fact that this dismissal of material progress has faced so little opposition speaks to how profoundly disoriented the project of radical change has become. At one time, the expansion of wealth was viewed as a great boon for mankind: ‘For our demands are moderate’, wrote the Irish socialist James Connolly in 1907: ‘We only want the earth!’

The promise to give people a better life was also once one of the principal claims made for capitalism. But unable to expand and generalise wealth, and lacking clear alternatives, today playing down the benefits of material wealth is a rational strategy for the capitalist class. It is useful to remember that the wealthy in Victorian England, too, were known for looking down on the consumption habits of the working classes, pointing out they would not be so destitute if they would only be more frugal with their meagre wages.

Though presented in novel language and claiming to offer the opportunity to refocus on ‘what really makes us happy’, we should not be fooled into believing the happiness agenda is anything other than a top-down project which, consciously or not, affirms the current state of affairs as the only one possible. The real debate to be had today is not about happiness, but rather about progress – and the role of human beings in bringing it about.

Ashley Frawley has recently completed her PhD at the University of Kent researching the construction of ‘happiness’ as a social problem in the UK. She is currently based in Greece.

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Topics Politics


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