The happiness agenda makes for miserable policy

Is this really the kind of society we want? zoomar

How happy do you feel today? How satisfied are you with your life? Do you think your life has any worth? These are the kind of questions increasingly put to survey respondents as academics and politicians pick up the baton of raising the population’s subjective well-being. What was once perhaps the preserve of self-help gurus is now at the heart of public policy. According to Richard Layard, perhaps the leading advocate of happiness, well-being should be the new “frontier of the welfare state”. Move over GDP, it’s time to get happy.

Well-being is a seductive idea for many different groups. Greens like it because it emphasises sustainable ways of measuring social progress. The Left like it because it attacks the conflation of capitalism with human happiness, pointing to the socially corrosive impact of materialism and individualism. On the right, David Cameron himself has enshrined the happiness index in government rhetoric, and even George Osborne may have been seduced by the well-being agenda. Despite his austerity measures, we are apparently happier than we were before the Coalition’s programme of cuts.

Despite these apparent reasons to be cheerful, there are important debates to be had about the role of well-being in policy – debates that are too often untouched, or even dismissed, by well-being advocates. Many of these issues emerge from the findings of happiness research. What if these findings suggest, for example, politically and morally unpalatable policy implications?

Arguably, this is precisely what some evidence might do. My own work has examined the happiness effects of welfare-to-work programmes, policies that appear (caveats included) to boost the happiness of unemployed people. Does this mean, therefore, that the state is justified in “nudging” (or even coercing) unemployed people on to such schemes? And if income is relatively ineffective at raising happiness, why spend billions of pounds on redistribution, especially to people who are relatively comfortable economically? If religious people have higher well-being than the non-religious, should the state offer more support to faith-based institutions? And if having children makes us more miserable, then should there even be disincentives to have more babies?

Some of these proposals are more facetious than others. But beneath them lies an important point: if happiness research is really to be applied to public policy, we will have to grapple with the empirical evidence’s tendency to throw up unexpected or unwanted results.

What are we so happy about?

This point exposes a number of important challenges to the well-being agenda, some of which have been bypassed by its most vocal supporters. The first of these is the extent to which the identifiable causes of happiness simply reflect prevailing social norms. Is it any wonder, for example, that in a society where paid work has great economic, cultural and social value, those without it feel miserable? The same can be said for the relationship between happiness and marriage, and the positive social norms and benefits attached to conventional heterosexual relationships. The correlations found by social scientists might just reflect existing – and not necessarily desirable – social ideals.

Happiness research also appears to have little to say about structural economic inequalities. More unequal advanced societies often appear just as happy as more equal ones, and overlooking the importance of material well-being risks excluding income redistribution and poverty alleviation from the political agenda.

This links to a further worry: the risk that the well-being agenda might be exploited by politicians to exert new forms of social control on the most “unhappy” groups in society, like the unemployed and disabled, while simultaneously strengthening the role of the state in determining “what’s best” for individuals.

Finally, the age-old problem remains of whether feeling happy is all there is to a good life. What about higher and lower forms of happiness? And what about the importance we place on other principles and beliefs – such as justice, autonomy, solidarity and equality – that do not necessarily make us “feel good”? Martha Nussbaum has been the most sophisticated critic of the modern well-being movement, arguing that there is a profound value to even the most troubling emotions. After all, fear can fuel courage, anger can prompt justice, and grief is an inevitable consequence of love.

This is not to totally dismiss well-being as a policy object; in many senses, a reorientation of public policy away from the economic and towards how people actually feel about their lives is hugely welcome. But it must be handled with care, and there are vital and challenging debates to be had about the moral, political and social implications of well-being research. Making people happier as well as richer is a laudable aim, but the underlying argument is more tangled than is often. The pursuit of happiness is, as ever, an elusive and complex task.