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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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