Spotlight Leader: The politics of happiness

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As the world battles the viral threat that is Covid-19, it is clear that the toll of the pandemic is not merely physical. According to the Office of National Statistics, almost half of adults in the United Kingdom say they experienced “high” anxiety between 20 March and 30 March, when the country went into lockdown, compared to 21 per cent at the end of 2019. The latest available figures from 7 May still showed 37 per cent of UK adults reporting high anxiety, and 48 per cent saying their wellbeing has been affected at this difficult time.

Other statistics and reports paint a similar picture. Much of the population, old or young, from front-line NHS staff to supermarket cashiers to stay-at-home workers, is feeling the effects of this crisis. And it is not just a matter of generalised stress and anxiety. In the UK and elsewhere, women and children in abusive households are facing soaring levels of domestic abuse. With long-term instability and uncertainty, and a severe global recession on the horizon, healthcare professionals are expecting a spike in need for mental-health support. 

General wellbeing and mental health are impacted by a range of social and economic issues, as well as psychological, biological and emotional ones. Some would argue (see our interview with Dainius Puras on page 10) that inequality and social exclusion are key factors. Throughout the crisis, the government has put in place a series of emergency measures, making funding available to support organisations and individuals. But when we re-emerge from this crisis, policy makers will have an opportunity to refocus priorities beyond GDP and towards sustainable growth that also takes wellbeing and health into account.

These ideas are, of course, not entirely new. Bhutan has long had a Gross National Happiness Index. The UAE has a happiness minister and aims “to make the country among the top five happiest countries in the world by 2021”. Last year, New Zealand unveiled a “Wellbeing Budget”.

The effectiveness of such initiatives is still a matter for debate, and the easing of lockdown – and, in the long term, the end of the economic downturn – will clearly have a positive impact on wellbeing. But in parallel, as data during the pandemic shows, national feeling is a key factor in national resilience.

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