Why government issued well-being may not make us happier

A happy outcome? from www.shutterstock.com

Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.

That’s what David Cameron said, back when he was leader of the opposition, in 2006. In 2010, he followed up by announcing plans for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to run a programme that measures national well-being. This move tapped into a broader debate on the state’s role in improving well-being, with a long history involving philosophical, statistical, economical and psychological strands. It raised challenging questions around how to measure well-being, how measurements could be used to make decisions about government policy, and whether these policies are really in our best interests.

Sociologist and political economist Will Davies has been writing on these topics for many years. In his new book, The Happiness Industry, he critiques the ways that governments and big business have used various techniques to understand our well-being and explain it back at us.

With efforts currently underway to predict how certain policies will impact the nation’s well-being, using data from the ONS, I asked Will what this might mean for the future of policy-making.

Susan Oman: How do you see well-being or happiness working as a policy goal, which can be measured and delivered for the Conservative government, when it doesn’t always mean the same thing, or have the same value to people?

Will Davies: Obviously, there are many different methods and motivations for measuring well-being, and the assumption that the well-being agenda should primarily use the ONS’ measures is questionable. Economists such as Richard Layard see the ONS data as a rich resource for analysis, and there are opportunities for important progress if you can discover that certain things make people unhappy in a way that we weren’t previously aware of. There is little to criticise if these findings are corroborated by professional, disciplined survey and statistical methods. But it doesn’t answer many questions about how to resolve social problems.

The uses of well-being become less innocent when employed to pursue particular goals; where the agenda is extended beyond the limits of statistical and relatively academic economic questions. For instance, unemployed people suffer from much lower levels of well-being than just lost earnings. This finding has enabled the Increase of Access to the Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which was designed to provide much greater access to talking therapies for people with depression and anxiety.

Yet, what begins from good intentions to try to help people in need, can gradually morph into more manipulative interventions, such as making cognitive behavioural therapy a mandatory part of workfare programmes. It is here we need to be more wary.

Former civil servant Lord O’Donnell is trying to claim that this recession hasn’t caused as much damage to well-being as one might have imagined. That poses questions about the authority of the well-being indicators, as much as it does about well-being. I mean, does that mean that everything’s OK? Others such as Geoff Mulgan claim these data have enabled a better understanding of well-being, thereby improving the state’s capacity to deal with the recession. These promoters of well-being tell us they have identified that keeping people in work is good for national well-being; even if that work is uncertain, unfulfilling, and bad for personal well-being.

So when the government has pursued policies like benefit sanctions, which research shows cause manifest harm, then it follows that large-scale indicators of well-being probably aren’t the most effective thing to be looking at. And politicians are unlikely to point to well-being as a good news story if they invite such criticism.

If Cameron were to say “we’re feeling better”, it might suggest he values technocratic or “expert” views of how we are more seriously than the views of “hard-working families” about their own well-being or happiness.

Meditation for moguls? from www.shutterstock.com

Oman: Your new book opens with “the world’s happiest man” – a Buddhist monk who featured at last year’s World Economic Forum – and you comment a number of times on the tensions between rationalism and spiritualism. How do you see this playing out in policy making?

Davies: It seems like the happiness scientists and advocates like Layard and Oswald want to have their cake and eat it. They argue that happiness is what life’s about, and they treat it as though that’s obvious. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham says something similar. Yet they want this “thing”, if not to be measurable by itself, then to be measurable using various physical and behavioural indicators. So, they’re making a transcendent claim about human beings, while also making empirical claims about the mundane ways in which your happiness can be quantified these days, like kinds of words you tweet.

So there’s a big conflict central to this whole agenda, between the very bold sweeping philosophical claims about what human beings are all about, and these very prosaic claims about the problems of behavioural measurement and behaviour change and so on.

Although I don’t think Layard spends very much time worrying about that, I think he just sort of gets on with the economics of it. But it’s interesting how this behaviourist agenda can’t quite relinquish spiritual questions, and so tends to invoke what Layard has called secular religions. You can now subject mindfulness to an empirical evaluation, and there is an evidence base for cognitive behavioural therapy in policy-making terms (mainly because that operates positivist behavioural levels in the first place), but the idea that something like meditation could be conscripted into this grid of calculation seems obviously problematic to me, with unresolved issues in policy terms.

Oman: “Hope” is your last word in the book. With current attention on the government scrapping the Human Rights Act and July’s emergency budget, it seems unreasonable to be making claims that you are committed to improving national well-being. You mention Raymond Williams’ “Long Revolution”, and the role of democratic institutions in the conclusion. Do you think well-being might offer new “resources of hope”?

Davies: You cannot give up on happiness. You might have an existentialist slump, but that’s different from people facing genuine despair. I think you have to retain a commitment to happiness in some sense; a commitment to people living good or better lives. Dolan and others may claim they know who is suffering most, and use economics to argue that putting certain policies in place will reduce suffering. But this doesn’t always work.

Sometime before the Conservatives discovered mutuals – companies that provide public services, but are owned by members – I visited one of the first public sector mutuals, a Rochdale housing estate which was being run down with demotivated staff, and so on. Council employees were moved into this mutual as an asset lock, so it couldn’t be sold, and the residents were allowed to elect representatives to sit on a non-executive board. Now, this is a difficult thing to make work, because our society is not accustomed to taking part in democratic institutions, as Williams explained.

The person elected in Rochdale was inexperienced; yet, all involved were offered training, and the elected representative participated in meetings, became more able to offer a disinterested judgement about what was good for everybody. I think “hope” and a politics of happiness requires institutions of voice where people can articulate their unhappiness with agency. I think the deliberate articulation of happiness and unhappiness is something that the left should keep fighting to defend.