The politics of happy

Christine Mclean.
Christine Mclean.
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So, the government suddenly cares how we feel, but just why are they so concerned with our wellbeing and is it genuine concern?

Rod McPhee considers whether happiness is really a trivial pursuit.

Just a few days ago Claire Fox of think-tank the Institute of Ideas stopped off in Leeds to host a debate on our national wellbeing.

“We had a right old ding-dong,” she recalls, laughing. “I spoke a little about the politics of happiness and then we had a very lively debate in which they gave me a right hard time and everyone, of all ages, asked me lots of tough questions. It was brilliant.”

It’s curious to think that something as seemingly delightful as happiness should have become such a political hot potato in recent months.

And yet, that’s just what has happened since Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the government would soon be asking the Office of National Statistics to measure the contentment of the nation as they draw up future policies.

So, alongside important indicators such as inflation, interest rates and GDP, our general state of wellbeing would help the UK navigate its way through the 21st century.

And unlike Cameron’s Big Society it seems to have pushed some psychological buttons. Who’d have thought the notion of happiness could be so contentious?

“The trouble is that if you question the idea of happiness you could end up being seen as some kind of whining Victor Meldrew type,” says Fox. “And that’s unfair because it’s healthy to question and debate issues. In this instance there are issues there to debate too.

“For example, what do they mean by happiness? Do they mean wellbeing or do they mean contentment? or might it mean indulging in things we like but aren’t necessarily good for us?

“If we said to someone: what would make you happier? and they told you they’d like to see the indoor smoking ban removed, would it then be right to lift that, even if it was to the detriment of others and to your own health?

“I think the trouble is that it could actually make us more selfish. We ask the question: am I happy? When, perhaps, we should ask: Are WE happy?”

The new indicator isn’t one exclusive to Britain. Governments in Canada and France are also looking at measuring the mood of their nations as they draw up policies and plans.

But is it a useful indicator? As with crime statistics and school league tables would a happiness index really be an accurate gauge?

Fox says: “There is the worry that we may become narcissistic and, in starting to analyse our feelings, suddenly develop an exaggerated sense of our discontentment when, in fact we might be fine or just a little unhappy.

“And at the other extreme, we may say we’re happy because we’re content but does that mean that our lives are actually better?

“There’s the risk that we say something like: ‘look at a single mum on the breadline who may be very happy and look at a highly pressured banker with lots of money, which is better? Who is happier?

“Then it’s very easy for a government to show that happiness is more important than all the other things. But it’s easy to be more dismissive of money and material things when you already possess them.

“But as a starting point for discussion I also think it is a very healthy one. It’s also worth pointing out that this notion isn’t just one that Cameron invented, it was an idea which started to grow under Blair and Brown too.”

But why now? Why is the government so interested in our wellbeing in the year 2011? One reason might be that society has changed and it’s time to reassess our needs and priorities.

Christine Mclean is The Wife Coach, a Leeds-based master practitioner helping

women achieve ‘a life balance, identify priorities and realise their own identity.’

She says: “I think the role of women in society has seen a particularly big change. Now there’s more pressure being applied and women are pulled in different directions. They’re expected to be housewives, mothers, partners and increasingly single mums and career women.

“The trouble with starting the debate on happiness is that once you’ve asked about someone’s state of being the onus then shifts back on the government to respond to that in some way. It makes them a hostage to fortune.

“There’s not a lot of point in asking about problems surrounding happiness without being able to provide some kind of solution and I’m not sure if government can provide the solutions.

“In my experience people tend to be unhappy because there’s always the BE, HAVE, GOT issue. In other words they say ‘I’ll BE happy when I HAVE this and I’ve GOT that.’ But I think one of the secrets of happiness is to be happy with what you already have and anything else you get is a bonus.

“I know that sounds simple but people are often continually in pursuit of happiness and may not even realise they already possess it.

“They always want more and in the process can often make themselves feel unnecessarily miserable.”

That sentiment is certainly echoed by OC Heaton, the Leeds writer who quit a lucrative career as a high-flying lawyer in New York to return to his home city.

“I never had so much materially,” he says. “But, looking back I was never more unhappy as I was then.

“The trouble is I don’t think happiness is something the government can affect. They can affect things like the economy, for example, I’ll certainly be a lot happier when they’ve got our national debt down.

“But I think you can only really make yourself happier. On top of that there are other factors which influence us, which are entirely separate, such as the news. These days we’re constantly being bombarded with 24-hour news and, let’s face it, 90 per cent of it is negative. One way we could make ourselves feel less miserable would be just to turn the TV or radio off for a day or two.

“That’s why the Royal Wedding was such a huge thing in this country and globally. I wasn’t interested initially but then I got sucked into it because it was a really big, happy, positive story about, essentially, a love affair – and that has nothing to do with politics.”

So if we are genuinely concerned about being happy is the answer self help, which isn’t always easy, or is it looking to government to implement wellbeing from the top down and face criticism for expanding the nanny state? The answer may well be A Third Way.

Almost two years ago Leeds Metropolitan University launched mywellbeing.org, a website offering help and advice to both employees and students

It created so much interest that LMU now license the website out to around a dozen clients including Leeds City Council and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust – two of the biggest institutions of their kind in Britain.

With over 3,000 hits a month the demand for the site is remarkable, indicating that people are keen to improve or maintain their state of mind. But what it doesn’t do is enforce change.

“It’s a very light touch,” says John Hamilton head of Safety, Health and Wellbeing at LMU.

“A lot of people out there either need or are willing to consider help but they don’t want to be preached to. So what our website does is offer help and advice which can be adopted or ignored if they wish. Either way it’s up the individual how they move forward.

“It’s developed massively since 2009. Initially there were about 80 topics of interest on there, now there are over 200.

“Rather than it simply being a case of an individual trying to go it alone or a government enforcing things on a whole nation from the top down, this is a way of helping people on a medium-sized level. We’re not wagging our fingers at people telling them what they should be doing, but we are of a reasonable enough size and have reasonable enough resources to provide a really positive effect on people’s lives.”

Interestingly, the site isn’t the product of mere philanthropy. Although its primary concern is the wellbeing of employees and students, this isn’t just charity work.

Hamilton admits there is a business angle attached to the project. If employees can be helped through problems in their life then that may reduce days off work through sickness and increase productivity, and if students can be aided during their studies then that may well reduce dropout levels.

“The difference is that we now look beyond what is simply the legal rights of an individual,” says Hamilton. “Now it’s also about what is moral and helpful to people and, in turn, how that can benefit us as an organisation and other organisations too.

“So, for example, if something unfortunate happens to someone we could look at getting them some emergency time off and go beyond the duty of care – and I think that that really is the way forward.”

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