Smile, it's an election. Photo: Flickr/~Pawsitive~Candie_N
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Which party should you vote for to make you happiest?

You’ve heard the economic arguments and seen the policy wrangling, but which party would actually increase your happiness?

Each party justifies its policies by appealing to principles like fairness, equality or security. These are hard to object to and harder to choose between. What if, instead, I just wanted to know which party would make me, as the average Briton, happier? Which policies will make people experience more pleasurable, fulfilling, satisfising lives?

In principle, this is a question there could be an objective, factual answer to. Social scientists have been collecting data for 60 years on what makes people happy. Simply, people are asked how they think and feel about their lives. While people do differ in what makes us happy, we differ less than we’d think. Just as no one wants to be in pain, nearly everyone enjoy spending time with their friends and doing fulfilling work. Using the data on happiness, can we establish which polices should make people happier on average. In theory, we could audit the manifestos’ impact on happiness just like the Office of Budget Responsibility does their spending promises.

In practice, it’s not so simple. Doing a precise calculation is immensely complicated. What we can do, and I’ve done here, is a quick and dirty analysis. On the basis of the happiness evidence, we can divide policies into three groups.

The first is those policies that don’t clearly matter to happiness. The top examples are policies to bring economic growth and anything to do with the deficit. Perhaps the most famous result in the happiness data – known as the Easterlin Paradox, named after the economist who noticed it – is that people in developed countries have been getting wealthier, but not any more satisfied with their lives, since World War Two.

While this may seem mysterious, it’s got a fairly obvious explanation. Our happiness is determined by how we feel about what we pay attention to. We adapt to unchanging circumstances and stop paying attention to them. On a daily basis, ordinary people might worry about their work, their family, their health and their commute. What they don’t do is wake up every day a feel grateful they aren’t in a North Korean labour camp. In the same way, rich people don’t focus on how rich they are. That’s why increasing average wealth won’t make the country happier. We can’t neglect economics altogether (as the Greeks or the Zimbabweans could tell us) but wealth doesn’t matter nearly as much we think it does.

Also in this category are foreign affairs, immigration and education. Today, how long did you think about Isis or foreign immigrants for? Was it longer or shorter than you spent thinking about what you should have for lunch? Exactly. Equally, while different education policies may make people smarter, it’s less clear how they’ll increase national happiness. The rule of thumb is that if a policy wouldn’t change something that you’ve done or thought about today, it doesn’t matter.

The second group is policies that do affect happiness, but spending money on them won’t increase it overall because that means you’re taking money from something else. Examples of this include things like spending more on physical health, transport or law and order. If the Tories create 5,000 more doctors, but won’t spend any more overall, and that money comes out the police force or rail infrastructure, the changes cancel each other out.

The third are policies that are really important happiness because they change how people experience their lives. Policies that increase support for mental health and social care, reduce unemployment and lift people out of poverty are those that matter most. To realise why, think of it this way: while breaking a leg might be painful initially, in the modern day it’s really just an inconvenience. However, being depressed, being unemployed or being in poverty are not things you adapt to and stop thinking about.

So, who should you vote for? It depends on your economic views. If you think money grows on trees, vote Green: their support for a guaranteed income, amongst other things, will increase happiness in the short term. If you don’t think money does, vote Lib Dem: their £3.5bn commitment to mental health is the policy with the biggest positive happiness impact. Just behind them are Labour, with the Tories and Ukip’s more right-wing welfare policies putting them in fourth and fifth.

Michael Plant is a philosopher, happiness consultant and co-founder of Hippo.Rocks.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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