A woman awaits the papers at a Middlesbrough and East Cleveland Count. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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Mourning the election? Even a bad result cheers you up

Studies show that populations are happier when they can choose things - including the government.

Here’s a handy scientific fact to bear in mind if the election has turned out badly for you: that there was an election at all to get unhappy about has already increased your levels of happiness.

In a paper published last month, Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in Rotterdam took stock of the 23,000 research findings on happiness published since the 1970s. One central insight was that having opportunities to choose things in life increases happiness. In developed countries, political freedom has stronger links to happiness than economic freedom.

The study of happiness is a surprisingly fruitful area of research and it is having some success in infiltrating politics. David Cameron has been known to discuss the idea that politicians should work to increase what he terms “general well-being”. Maybe that’s to be expected: politicians want to make you happy, after all, even if no one since Nye Bevan has actually pulled it off. Nonetheless, the Labour peer Richard Layard, who works at the London School of Economics, has suggested that government policy should be guided by the research literature on happiness. A policy, he says, should be chosen for its effect on contentment rather than its perceived economic value.

It is important to appreciate that we won’t all be equally happy. Veenhoven’s paper points out that the average happiness score in Denmark, one of the top four happy nations, was 8.1 out of ten in a 2008 survey. But a tenth of the population scored itself at five or less. In Zimbabwe, then the least happy country, 14 per cent of the people were still as happy as the average Dane.

Yet the difference in happiness between citizens is getting smaller. You won’t be shocked to learn that happiness rises as inequality falls. Having less to envy increases your well-being. As a result of a general fall in inequality across the world, we are, as a species, happier than ever.

So, where to go from here? Scientists have some tips: they have found that you can make yourself happier by spending time with family members, distracting yourself from negative thoughts and allowing yourself to dwell on your emotions for a couple of minutes a day. Social relationships are also hugely beneficial to your well-being. For all the health advice about alcohol, going out for a drink with friends is probably better for you than abstemiously staying at home.

Puzzles remain. One is whether long-term happiness growth is sustainable. Self-reported happiness is a predictor of longevity but increased longevity correlates with the incidence of cancer and dementia. A Saga survey released last year showed that these are the illnesses we fear most. It may be that fear and happiness will one day cancel out each other’s growth.

Second, Veenhoven’s report shows that the number of scientific articles on happiness published each year has been growing at an enormous rate since the 1960s. However, there was a conspicuous ten-year downturn from 1980. Why did the reigns of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stop us researching happiness?

A third unknown is that no one has data on the happiness of North Koreans. They don’t take part in surveys of this kind.

Here’s a question to discuss at your happiness-boosting post-election drinks party: should we have ministers for happiness and well-being? And how quickly after they read their first set of briefing papers will they resign to spend more time with their family? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.