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Panelist's View

Political Happiness

It has become one of the best known factoids in the western world: despite a sharp rise in material wealth over the past 40 years the average level of reported happiness has remained static.

The factoid is most often wielded by the political left in its battle against excessive materialism, inequality and competition which, it believes, are at the root of the “status anxiety” that makes us less happy than we should be. In Britain, for example, one of the key figures in the happiness debate is Richard Layard, the LSE economics professor and Labour peer, who advocates higher taxes on the rich to mitigate status anxiety. And Oliver James, the influential British media psychologist, in his new book Affluenza, argues (drawing on some of the new happiness research) that citizens of Anglo-Saxon capitalist countries are twice as likely to suffer from mental illness as those from less competitive and materialistic west European states.

The revival of this neo-hippy ideology is in many ways to be welcomed -- as is anything that encourages us to think about human well-being in a more rounded way -- but much of the reasoning underlining it is questionable.

For a start a great many other things have happened in rich countries over the past 40 years besides rapid economic growth. For example: big increases in public spending, enormous advances in the status of women, a big rise in mobility and migration. Perhaps it is those things that are making us miserable (and without the rise in GDP per capita perhaps we would be even more miserable). Perhaps the cause is even more nebulous: what Francis Fukuyama writing in the February issue of Prospect magazine calls the problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. For all sorts of reasons postmodern people find it hard to assert positive values and collective identities (one of the reasons, Fukuyama argues, for the attraction of identity politics).

But leaving aside the lack of clarity over cause and effect in the happiness data there is a bigger problem for the happiness watchers, especially those of them who identify with the political left. Many of the findings in the happiness literature that do seem to have some causal force can be described, broadly, as conservative. A stable family life, being married and having a religious faith seem to contribute to happiness, while divorce detracts from it sharply. (In a recent paper, Andrew Oswald of Warwick University, Britain’s leading happiness researcher, considered the findings of 95 papers on happiness and marriage and found very large benefits compared with co-habiting.)

Indeed, what the happiness debate rather cruelly highlights is the conflict within the left itself between what one might call the “solidarity and stability left” -- which overlaps at many points with social conservatives -- and the “liberty and mobility left” which overlaps in certain respects with more free market libertarian beliefs. Policies that might appeal to the first group, such as making divorce and mass immigration harder, would be anathema to the second group.

So, perhaps it is just a matter of time before David Cameron, the centrist new leader of Britain’s Conservative party, places himself at the head of a socially conservative happiness movement knowing that this would please his own rank and file while dividing his opponents right down the middle.

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Comments (1)

Anju Chandel, New Delhi, India.:

Happiness is an "inner" thing and therefore, cannot be bought with any amount of money or materials. It comes from within, with peaceful intersection of all the tree dimensions of one's existence - mind-heart-soul, i.e., when one's inner self is in complete equilibrium with one's outer self :)

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