Action for Happiness

(Colin Bell)

The Action for Happiness movement officially launched yesterday in the UK and has attracted a lot of interest – the website has been struggling. It’s a high profile independent group, with a board containing Richard Layard and Nic Marks, so with solid academic credentials underpinning their practical suggestions.

Something like this could easily have been a government initiative set up by David Cameron, who has given considerable public support to ideas like this. Given responses to those, however, the entire project would probably have soon become sunk under a deluge of cynicism. Many were claiming he was proposing a “be nice to each other” agenda (along with the Big Society) partly as a means of trying to disguise people’s true unhappiness caused by the economic situation being made worse – as they claimed – by his government’s policies.

So the independence of this group is welcome. And they seem to be saying some relatively radical things in the sustainability and growth debate. A key paragraph of their manifesto seems to be:

For fifty years we’ve aimed relentlessly at higher incomes. But despite being much wealthier, we’re no happier than we were five decades ago. At the same time we’ve seen an increase in wider social issues, including a worrying rise in anxiety and depression in young people. It’s time for a positive change in what we mean by progress.

Under “Isn’t the movement a diversion from the current economic crisis?” we find the even more surprising

If … we had looked at what really matters to people we would have seen that economic stability is very important and long-term economic growth much less so. A top priority for our society now is to reduce unemployment which is one of the greatest enemies of happiness.

With the exception of Caroline Lucas, you’d be amazed to hear any current MP saying this.

Of course, these are fine aims, but how do things work out in practice? Unfortunately, this is where some questions do need to be asked. Under “Take Action” there are twelve headings, of which the vast majority are largely of the “be nice to each other” type – be kind, help bring up children well, volunteer in the community, and so on.

Not that this is to be discouraged, but there does seem to be three major things missing. The first is any challenge to our obsession with wealth, material things, and indeed any reference to the “equality” agenda – which between them are worth two chapters in Layard’s Happiness book! Perhaps “Get yourselves out of debt and stop filling your house with junk you don’t need” might jar, but could well have more positive impact on happiness than many of the other ideas!

The second, perhaps more important, is the lack of parallel commitments from institutions, who in many respects hold a lot of the cards. For instance, one of the sections is on happiness at work, and there’s a excellent summary of the factors that influence employee well-being. A lot of these, however, are largely under the control of the employer. Clearly the employee’s reaction has some effect, but if the work is set up so that it is inherently unfulfilling or over-stressed due to lack of staff, there is not a lot that can be done. (Today, as it happens, the nurses’ conference voted no confidence in the Minister of Health on broadly these grounds.) So unless action can be taken on this front, good things like work-life balance and spending more time volunteering are going to be a dream for many.

A further criticism, related to this, is a somewhat misleading pie-chart, which claims that happiness is 50% genes and upbringing, 40% activities and relationships, and 10% income and environment. “As much as 40% is accounted for by our daily activities and the conscious choices we make. So the good news is that our actions really can make a difference.”

This data isn’t sourced, but I found another reference here, which clarifies that the 10% is geography, family and health (which you can’t do much about) and the 40% is everything else – including work. So how much of this is actually under our individual control is debatable.

So overall: will following these guidelines make us happier – or have better well-being, which is the term I’d prefer? Presumably yes, but limited quite heavily unless government and business practice change to fit the ideals, and I fear many could lose hope in it pretty fast.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Action for Happiness

  1. Is it indeed a government initiative to think about happiness as a political priority??? I can only say wow!!!! I think it would probably be the first time that happiness is a matter placed high in the politics agenda.
    But I do happen to agree with you. It all sounds very noble, but there has to be a deep reorganization of society in general, corporations, government etc., to really give priority to the happiness of the regular citizen…

  2. Colin Bell

    To answer your question: to some extent. Happiness is something our Prime Minister has been talking about for some time, and it will be offiically measured from next summer. How much this will feed into government policy remains to be seen, since it’s generally thought that some other parts of the government aren’t so keen on the idea, but let’s wait and see. There’s no doubt that it’s definitely a step in the right direction though.

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