27 Aug More on happiness and politics
Cameron should count on happiness
If wellbeing is not linked to wealth, it could still prove a surprisingly Tory agenda
Larry Elliott, economics editor
Monday August 27, 2007
So how did you feel last week when you heard the news that the UK economy grew by 3% over the past year? What do you mean, you weren’t on the edge of your seat to see whether Britain was maintaining what Gordon Brown calls, with just a smidgen of hyperbole, the longest spell of uninterrupted growth since the dawn of the industrial revolution?
The fact is nobody really cares or notices these days what has been happening to gross domestic product, which itself is a sign of the times. There would be far more attention given to the growth figures were the UK to be gripped by recession.
No, the stories in the headlines last week were David Cameron’s “bare-knuckle fight” with the government over NHS closures, the spate of gun crime culminating in the fatal shooting of an 11-year-old boy in Liverpool, and the weather.
Against this backdrop, it came as no surprise to discover that 196,000 people left the UK for good last year – with Australia and Spain the favourite destinations. (And that was 2006 when the weather was blisteringly hot; expect an even bigger exodus in 2007).
This appears to support the argument that Britain might be getting richer in terms of the goods and services it provides, but it isn’t getting any happier. On the contrary, so the thesis goes, the country is going to the dogs.
Politicians have latched on to these developments. Cameron has talked about the need to supplement GDP with alternative measures of wellbeing, and Labour is eager to show that the moral decay of Britain has not been accelerated by a decade of selfish materialism.
Yet it is not just politicians who have caught the bug. Happiness has also been taken up as an issue by economists, including some eminent ones. David “Danny” Blanchflower, who with Andrew Oswald, had been at the forefront of research into happiness, may be one of the nine people who set interest rates each month but he believes that policy in the 21st century will probably have to concentrate more on non-materialistic goals, including wellbeing.
Richard Layard, one of those responsible for coming up with the idea of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment in the 1980s, has become a strong advocate of policies designed to maximise happiness. Layard says that the goal of maximising income per head is a bad yardstick for the conduct of economic policy, since what counts in terms of happiness is not how much you earn, but how much you earn relative to everybody else.
Moreover, people quickly become accustomed to higher incomes, leaving them no happier and making decisions that are not in their best interests, such as working long hours.
Layard has made the case for government intervention to improve happiness: redistributive taxation, a shorter working week and a big increase in public spending to tackle depression.
Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod have recently taken issue with Layard. It’s true, they argue, that there doesn’t appear to be much correlation between economic growth and happiness. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation with public spending, crime, greater sexual equality or rising life expectancy either. What’s more, the fact that people rapidly become accustomed to higher levels of income is not the same as saying that they would be indifferent to having their car taken away, using a mangle instead of a spin-dryer and being prevented from going abroad on holiday. Although the data seems to suggest that we were happy back in the 1950s, it is hard to imagine that many people would want to go back in time and live there, particularly women, who did most of the hard graft in the home.
Avner Offer, economic history professor at All Souls Oxford has a riposte to this. We have shifted increasingly from the purchase of labour-saving devices like washing machines to time-using devices such as iPods and DVD players. These bring only momentary pleasure and then – egged on by the advertising industry – we are on to the next thing.
Johns and Ormerod are suspicious of this line of thinking. It smacks, they believe, of the days of post-war planning when the man in Whitehall knew best. “The logical conclusion of much happiness research – that individuals’ own judgments about what is good for them can, indeed should, be overridden by experts who can ‘prove’ these judgments did not make them happier – is both undemocratic and unattractively paternalistic.”
Politicians tend to agree. While they have been quick to show awareness of the limitations of GDP as a measure of national wellbeing, they are far more cautious when it comes to steps that might curtail individual freedom. The dilemma over whether to allow the expansion of air travel despite growing concern about climate change is a case in point.
It would come as a shock were Gordon Brown to place statutory curbs on the working week; it would be a political bombshell were he to justify raising the top rate of tax by arguing (as some do) that it would help everybody – the rich included.
Cameron’s dilemma is whether to make marriage a big part of his agenda. The evidence shows, quite clearly, that he should, since Oswald’s extensive research into happiness has shown a strong link between wellbeing and wedlock. “The size of the health gain from marriage is remarkable. It may be as large as the benefit from giving up smoking,” he says.
Marriage has three benefits, according to Oswald. First, because two can live almost as cheaply as one, it means higher real incomes. Second, it is a source of emotional support – providing a buffer against stress and enhancing feelings of attachment. Finally, there is the guardian role. “Married individuals act differently from single people. They tend to engage less in risky activities and more in healthy ones – perhaps for the sake of their partner. For example, married people smoke and drink less. Moreover, partners probably unconsciously monitor each other for early symptoms of illness.”
Although, it’s hard to detect a link between growth and overall levels of wellbeing, the evidence is that stable family life, being married, financial security, health, having religious faith and feelings of living in a cohesive community where people can be trusted, all contribute to happiness.
If the Conservatives were capable of joined-up thinking there is a policy agenda in the making here, for while many on the left are attracted by the idea that money isn’t everything, they may have more of a problem with some of the possible remedies for unhappiness.
As Johns and Ormerod note: “Insofar as policy conclusions can be drawn at this stage of happiness research, they imply increased support for marriage, reductions in incentives to single parents, and the promotion of religious faith…This is not a set of policy conclusions that most proponents of the happiness research tend to emphasise.”