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Poverty & Inequality

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An Unhappiness Index is More David Cameron's Style
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The UK government is planning to be among the first countries to officially measure happiness, but they fail to realise that the psycho-social stress of being near the bottom is what makes people unhappier than in a society that shares more fairly, writes Polly Toynbee.

16th November 2010 - Published by the Guardian (UK)

David Cameron did not invent happiness. In any felicific calculus, he is unlikely to go down in history as the man who created the greatest happiness for the greatest number. On the contrary, he heads a government in the process of inflicting more pain than for many a long year. So why, next week, would he launch a great new plan to measure the wellbeing of the nation? "It's very brave," says Professor Richard Layard of the LSE, who has campaigned for these indicators for years.

Cameron is making the announcement partly because he might as well embrace the inevitable: the Office for National Statistics was doing it anyway. Jil Matheson, the entirely independent chief statistician, has been working for a long time on ways to measure the emotional state of the nation. It was an ONS priority published in 2009 because, she says, "there is growing international recognition that to measure national wellbeing and progress there is a need to develop a more comprehensive view, rather than focusing solely on GDP".

Lord Layard and colleagues have had a contract from the ONS to work on this project since last year. Good ideas have many authors: it was partly instigated by Ed Miliband when in the Cabinet Office, he who ran his leadership campaign on quality of life. David Halpern as head of Tony Blair's strategy unit inside No 10 produced a brilliant paper in 2003 – Life Satisfaction – calling for politics to focus on the things of most value; he is back in there in Cameron's nudge unit, nudging the government to look at happiness, which is a good thing.

Does it matter whose idea it was first? Not at all. It is an excellent step, welcomed by a growing train of economists who turn from the dismal science to hedonics instead. Why? Because the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Layard and many others found all the evidence showed that a doubled GDP in 30 years hadn't made people in developed countries any happier. There has to be a better way. When Cameron claimed the idea in his detoxifying days, it went down well with many, not naturally Conservative. That's the problem: most answers to the happiness conundrum point leftwards, 180 degree opposite to the Cameron/Osborne direction. The Cameron talk and walk diverged some time ago: the ONS measurements will chart the unhappiness path he chose.

From all these economists – many with Nobel prizes – and from books, such as Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level, Oliver James's Affluenza and Danny Dorling's Inequality, every model shows that the most unequal societies are the least happy. The Tea Party strand in British politics has set about an internet rubbishing of this view: though resoundingly refuted, it will never be budged by mere evidence. Even the rich in unequal countries are less happy than the best off in more equal countries. You see it in their miserable politics, the hatred, the fear, the exaggerated dislike of the poor, dread of crime, anxiety to hold on to what they have. Listen to the "greed is good" crowd and you suspect these are not happy people.

Tougher competition in every aspect of life, letting employers bully, league tables crudely ranking everyone, performance-related pay creating unfair pecking orders, children obliged to be the best – all this creates a mass of people destined to feel failures. The psycho-social stress of being near the bottom is what makes people unhappier than in a society that shares more fairly. Yet everything in the government's spending plans sets Britain on a turbo-charged path towards greater inequality.

Losing your job is one of the greatest causes of misery. Being sacked makes people ill, losing their nerve and the will to work again. Within very few years under Margaret Thatcher's lesser cuts the number of children in poverty leapt from one in seven to one in three as their parents lost jobs and never found their feet. Most of the intergenerational worklessness Iain Duncan Smith bemoans began then; it is about to happen to another generation.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development's figures yesterday showed public sector employers shedding jobs faster than expected: more than four in 10 will have culled 14% of staff by the end of the year. The private sector is hiring – but mainly temporary Christmas work. Layard's research shows the lasting damage: even those who find jobs again are left for ever less happy, feeling life is more dangerous.

The government has put deficit reduction before the damage done to people. As daily distress emails report cuts in services that do most to ease suffering, I find talk of happiness hard to swallow. Children's centres are taking a hit as councils cut back, leaving isolated and depressed mothers on their own. Breakfast and after-school clubs are closing, leaving neglected children without the second home that schools were becoming. Connexions offices, which picked up the young fallers and "neets" (not in education, employment or training) are closing, along with youth programmes that helped cut crime. Frail old people are losing home visits. Housing benefit cuts forcing families to uproot to places where they know no one will cause immense suffering. The poorest teenagers are about to lose the educational maintenance allowance that paid their travel to college and gave them a little money of their own. Look at what is about to hit the arts, a great source of pleasure. If fewer go to university as a result of tripling fees, the sum total of happiness will fall: people with degrees record greater life satisfaction than those without, a cultural enrichment beyond mere earnings.

What can governments do to make people happier? Invest in jobs. Regard GDP as a futile measure if all growth is captured by the few. Reach out to the loneliest, the weakest, the depressed and unemployed. The happiest people join groups, volunteer, trust one another and share the values of sharing. Collective endeavour does more for you than retail therapy.

And why not more national holidays, since the UK has the fewest in Europe? Early next year Layard and others launch their Movement for Happiness. Sign up to a project where the best evidence will be collected to press for policies that make people happiest. The impossible contradiction between Cameron's deeds and words will be stretched beyond bearing when he launches those excellent new ONS measurements.

Link to original source

Further resources:

National Accounts of Wellbeing - website by the New Economics Foundation.

Cutting It: The Big Society and the new austerity, a report by the nef on the UK government spending cuts, released on 4th November 2010.