03 Oct Will happiness and optimism be the defining themes of this century?
Anthony Seldon: The politics of optimism will be the defining theme of our century
The danger of the _ãÄBig Society_ã_ approach is the opposite to what many Tories fear, not that it will be too important but that it will not be central enough
Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s influential policy adviser, was glued to the television when Ed Miliband delivered his leader’s speech on Tuesday afternoon.
One portion made him jump: “We are the optimists in politics today.” For years, Hilton had been banging the optimist drum and, until the banking crisis, he had been carrying all before him. Cameron had even started speaking about Britain following Bhutan in being interested in measuring “general well-being” (GWB) alongside gross domestic product (GDP).
Hilton, more than any other influential figure in politics today, understands the agenda which will come to dominate 21st-century politics _ã_ that the quality of life matters as much as quantity and metrics. An obsession with the latter is destroying so much that is good about our society. One has to only look at our schools to see that the fixation with exam results and league tables has come at the cost of joy of learning, and our young are the losers from it.
Cameron’s “Big Society” embodies much of the thinking of the optimistic approach. Following the Swiss philosopher Rousseau, it has a benign view of human nature, believing that individuals are naturally good and will want to look after others and improve their communities if the deadening hand of government is removed. It is the opposite of the Hobbesian approach which still bedevils the right wing _ã_ that you can’t trust people to do the right thing, especially not if they’re working class, so you need the state to watch over them. Trust is the key. All politicians talk about it. But it is just talk.
The danger of the “Big Society” approach is exactly the opposite of what many Conservatives fear: not that it will be too important, but that it will not be central enough in the agenda of the Coalition Government. The worry is that George Osborne and the humourless grey people who influence him in politics will be insensitive in the spending review, and create cycles of pessimism to reverberate around the country.
Optimism is not the enemy of realism. Great leaders are optimists because they offer a vision of the future. Optimism is self-fulfilling, especially when tempered by realism. Optimistic leaders are more successful in making enduring change. Optimists bring out the best in those below them. They do so, not through fear, but by painting a picture of a brighter future, and the role of each in achieving it.
Positivity has received a series of assaults in recent months, some good, as with Barbara Ehrenreich in her polemic Smile or Die. There is indeed much that is superficial, mischievous and plain wrong about the “positivity” industry: sadness is inevitable and indeed can be ennobling and much positivity tries to sweep over reality with a glib glean. But some professional debunkers belittle what is valuable…
…read more to find out the relevance of happiness and optimism – HERE