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A victory for the Happy Revolutionaries

Mark Easton | 17:12 UK time, Monday, 7 December 2009

Quietly, without fanfare, this morning the British government embraced the politics of happiness. It did so, coincidentally, on the day that two former Downing Street advisers separately urged ministers to go further: to make well-being, rather than wealth, the key measure of political and social progress.

The Happiness Formula seriesI remember being ridiculed by one of Tony Blair's inner circle when, a few years ago, I wrote an article which suggested that a quiet revolution was under way in Whitehall, with influential officials proposing that well-being should be a strategic aim of every government department. Well today, buried in a report on mental health strategy, ministers commit themselves to putting "well-being in all policy". I feel vindicated.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham calls it a "major social issue demanding action across all parts of government" and says his officials will work with other departments to "ensure that policies consider the impact on well-being, as well as informing future policy and research".

This is a major victory for what I once called the "new utilitarians" - campaigners, thinkers and strategists working inside government who believe the political preoccupation with economic indicators has been at the expense of our happiness.

Among them is Geoff Mulgan, one of New Labour's key policy strategists. As former director of Tony Blair's strategy unit and head of policy at Number Ten, Mulgan's ideas have shaped British politics in the last decade. Today, in a report published by the Young Foundation think-tank which he heads, he and others consider how to put the "well" into the "welfare state".

In Sinking and Swimming: Understanding Britain's Unmet Needs [4.53Mb PDF], it is argued that the politicians who designed the welfare state saw a distinct division in the role of state and society:

The state's job was to meet material needs and to insure people against material risks; society's job was to meet most of the psychological and psycho-social ones

"Sixty years later the picture is very different," it goes on. "Decades of economic growth have created a society which by past standards is materially abundant," but where "society's ability to meet people's psychological and psycho-social needs appears to have declined." Mulgan argues that the "buffers of religion and family" have been weakened with "a rise of individualism".

One answer proposed in the report is that "social accounts including subjective measures of well-being should be published alongside the more familiar economic accounts". The problems with measuring happiness have always been in the weakness in the utilitarian argument, but this report suggests that we now have the understanding and ability to manage it.

The Hidden Wealth Of NationsThe importance of finding an accepted way to quantify our social well-being is stressed in another publication today. The book The Hidden Wealth of Nations is by another "new utilitarian", David Halpern. Chief analyst in the prime minister's Strategy Unit between 2001 and 2007, he has written many of the most influential papers in shaping the politics of happiness. Now outside government, he expresses his confidence that within 10-15 years, "policymakers will routinely be using sophisticated well-being measures in judgements about policy".

Halpern believes that simply by measuring it, happiness will come to be seen as a more important political outcome than riches. "This shift will subtly change the focus of policymakers, and probably of citizens too," he claims. "If we can increase the growth in this, then surely we shall have cause to celebrate," he says.

An embryonic measure of well-being is announced in today's New Horizons report from the Department of Health. In encouraging ministers and civil servants to think about well-being in designing policy, the DH reveals that an "online cost calculator is being developed... to support best value for money in effective local approaches to population well-being in both urban and rural areas".

The document helpfully offers an official definition of well-being as "a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment".

Well-being is therefore distinct from mental illness. Someone can have symptoms of a mental illness and still experience well-being just as a person with a physical illness or long-term disability can. In the same way someone can have poor mental well-being, but have no clinically identifiable mental illness.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman a few years ago at his house in Princeton in New Jersey. He had been attempting to measure happiness and unhappiness in a study across the United States.

"It turns out", he said, "something like 15% of the overall time that people spend is bad time, unpleasant time. Now that gives you something to get your teeth into. If you manage to reduce that number from 15% to 14%, you would be doing a great service to humankind!"

I like this idea, that the purpose of politics is to promote happiness and reduce misery. As David Cameron told me once: "we should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people's pockets but what is good for putting joy in people's hearts."

There is too much unhappiness in our society, as the Young Foundation report documents.

"Although most people are content with their lives, a growing number, particularly women, are not," it claims. This diagram indicates what the report describes as "a long and apparently lengthening spike of unhappiness, loneliness and stress":

Graph of psychological well-being

Between one in six and one in four people in the UK experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. The number of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs increased from 9 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2007. There are also important psycho-social needs - some people have no one to talk to day-to-day or about important issues

The report suggests that "loneliness has become a stark feature of a more individualistic society" with nearly half of all older people considering the television as their main form of company.

There are those who think it wrong for politicians to bother themselves with ideas of "emotional well-being". But few would suggest it is not their job to try and reduce unhappiness. If the commitment buried in today's strategy document is to be taken at face value, as David Halpern suggests, perhaps today we "have cause to celebrate".

PS: See also my post from September, An obsession with wealth.

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