Last days of the glee club

Happiness was all the rage among politicians, but attempts to measure the experience suggest it is f

There was a moment when it seemed that happiness might change British politics. Under Tony Blair, in 2002, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit held seminars exploring the concept of gross national happiness (GNH). Then, in 2006, on a BBC programme called The Happiness Formula, the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, talked of putting not just money in people's pockets, but "joy in people's hearts". He continued, in a speech at Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006, that "it's time we focused not on GDP but on GWB - general well-being". Felicific calculus seemed close to getting a page in the chancellor's Red Book.

That was before the age of austerity, though the science of happiness is having a better time during the downturn than you might presume. In the past week, the government has returned to Cameron's earlier theme with its intention to gauge the nation's happiness via questions on the household survey. This follows the French government's commission on economic performance and social progress, chaired by the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. After the commission published its report in September 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy requested that standardised surveys should now include mea­sures for well-being. Then, in May this year, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave a speech on the subject in which he said: "Economists researching happiness and life satisfaction have found that both inflation and unemployment detract from happiness." And this month's UN Development Programme report, The Real Wealth of Nations, noted that happiness is a useful complement to other measures of well-being. (The UK came 26th on the "happiness list" - above Portugal but below 17 other European states.)

This science of happiness is championed by the "new utilitarians". They take a lead from the philo­sopher and political radical Jeremy Bentham, who argued that one rule can be used to judge whether an action is good or bad: the increase of pleasure and decrease of pain, or "principle of utility". Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate, has developed a measure that he calls "objective happiness": "a moment-based conception of an aspect of human well-being", as he defines it in The Psychology of Economic Decisions. Roughly, it is a summation of the feelings that an individual has across a period of time - of pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow, satisfaction or dissatisfaction. However, it is readily critiqued.

The toe test

Aggregating happiness in this way requires a "neutral point" against which the report of a feeling can be assessed. If an experience feels above that neutral point, it is deemed pleasurable and good; if below, bad. But do pleasure and pain work like that? Daniel Read of Durham University provides a counter-example. Imagine running a bath, he says. It may be too hot or too cold. So we dip in a toe to check that the temperature is right. However, that midpoint between too hot and too cold is not neutral: it is optimal. Moreover, once in, you may decide to stay put even when the water becomes cold, because the book you are reading is so good.

This points to another set of problems. Your assessment of the moment will depend on a whole range of factors that, experimentally, are very hard to screen out. Then you can add in another difficulty, concerning whether one person's pleasure can be compared with another's. There are some who hate having baths and will shower every time.

All in all, while the science talks of "objective happiness", there is no Geiger counter for feli­city. That these difficulties are hard to circumvent helps explain why, to date, so many of the results of the science seem relatively obvious - at least to non-economists. We are informed that money makes you happy but only up to a point - the so-called Easterlin paradox (rises in income above a minimal level don't generate corresponding rises in happiness); or that being grateful for things generates happiness.

In his book The Happiness Equation, the behavioural economist Nick Powdthavee reports telling his grandmother about the insights of his work. "Tell me something I didn't already know," she replied. Similarly, while Bernanke's speech was weighted with scientific results, his conclusion was humdrum. "Ultimately, life satisfaction requires more than just happiness," he said. "Sometimes, difficult choices can open the doors to future opportunities, and the short-run pain can be worth the long-run gain."

Nonetheless, there is a growing body of data (indicators such as people's mental well-being) that suggests happiness is declining. "Things are not going completely well in western society," Andrew Oswald, professor of behavioural science at Warwick University, told me, citing an article he wrote jointly with Stephen Wu of Hamilton College, New York, published in Science this year. What is not clear is what to do about it. Oswald was a member of the Sarkozy commission and looked hard at interventions that governments might make. Various solutions have been proposed, from cleaner air to sharp tax increases. But Oswald remains cautious: "The economics of happiness is still too new. We don't know the right policy measures."

Too many questions

There is a deeper question to ask, too. The science will continue to gather data showing that GDP as the sole measure of well-being does not serve us well. It will highlight what many sense: that a consumer culture, for all its freedoms, does not necessarily produce satisfied citizens. But can the science tell us what to do?

There is a personal and a political element to this. At a personal level, the direct pursuit of happiness is arguably counterproductive. John Stuart Mill, Bentham's godson and protégé, came to believe that the measuring process could be self-defeating. "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so,' he wrote in his Autobiography. Forget happiness, he implies, for only then might you "inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without . . . putting it to flight by fatal questioning".

Then there is the political question. The science is immature but perhaps it will never be up to telling governments what to do. John May­nard Keynes, another thinker on well-being, suggested as much. He wondered whether happiness is a good subject for economists, pointing out that human beings' fundamental problems are not economic. They are those “of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion", he wrote in his essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren".

We, his grandchildren, have reached the point where our immediate physical needs are mostly well met, in the west at least. The challenge, Keynes wrote, is not to accumulate more, but to live wisely, agreeably and well. Only this "art of living" has become strange to us, because "we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy". The government says it is getting serious about our happiness. But as it implements its austerity measures, it hardly seems likely to advise us to stop striving and start enjoying.

Mark Vernon is the author of "The Good Life" (Hodder, £12.99)

Sense of satisfaction

There are few surprises in the section of the recent UN Development Programme report that ranks the world's nations according to their "perceptions of individual well-being and happiness". Norway tops the list, followed by the massed ranks of the world's most developed nations, including Australia, the US, Canada, Germany and Japan.

At 26, the UK is the lowest-ranked G8 nation apart from Russia, and is beaten by countries as far apart as Ireland (in fifth place) and South Korea (12th). Further down the list, Iran comes in at number 70, Afghanistan at 155, and Zimbabwe brings up the rear.

The methodology comes from the Gallup World Poll, conducted between 2006 and 2009. This survey seeks to measure an individual's "overall satisfaction" with life. Respondents were asked: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" Their evaluation was then given a score between zero and ten. People were also asked for a "daily experience" score.

Although the validity and accuracy of these measurements can be questioned, experts point to a "robust correlation" between these self-assessments and more "objective" measures of happiness, such as sociability, heart rate and electrical activity in the brain.
Caroline Crampton

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times