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Lord Layard

The Vickys: can you be paternalist without being patronising?

Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.

The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:

How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain?  What personal virtues should ground public service?  How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.

These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).

But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.

I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you.  Your character’s flourishing depends on your phyle’s network and moral culture – – and if you don’t have a phyle, you’re screwed. In the plot, the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.

So the real-world Vickys include, in the US, Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Illustrated Primer, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include  include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.

The UK Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, James O’Shaughnessy, who left the Number 10 policy unit last year to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who wrote Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ speech and who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism. Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week:

Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.

I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My book is very much about the new fusion of ancient virtue ethics with modern empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.

But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’.

Jeffrey Lebowski

Rich people tend to attribute their success entirely to their character, as if they simply have the right values, and poor people are poor because they don’t.  Very rich people like Sir John Templeton or Andrew Carnegie love to think they became incredibly wealthy because they worked out the primal ‘laws of the universe’ – and then they go around giving money to people like Napoleon Hill or Birmingham University to prove it. They insist that anyone can become as rich as them, they just need to follow these basic cosmic laws. It’s the philosophy of Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire in the Coen Brothers’ film, who turns out to have married into money. This laissez-faire / law of attraction philosophy goes down fairly well in America, because some millionaires like Carnegie really were self-made men – although look closer and you’ll see that an awful lot of America’s billionaires had the benefit of going to Yale or Harvard, like Templeton, Gates, Zuckerberg and others.

In the UK, it’s a lot harder to sell this emphasis on values and character, because we have a much more obviously class-ridden society, that is still to some extent dominated by the 7% who went to private school. And many of the New Paternalists went to private school. It becomes hard to sell, basically, when a privileged clique insists that social instability is purely a consequence of bad values. Let’s face it: it’s easier to have values like optimism when you grow up in an environment that tells you from the start that you are special, an environment that is filled with opportunities to develop your talents, that rewards effort, that creates the expectation of success, that gives you a sense from the start that you can influence your society and be listened to by your government. To create such an environment takes money (an average of £15,000 per pupil a year in independent schools, as opposed to £6,000 a year in the other 93% of the country. The most expensive schools cost over £30,000 a year).

On the other hand, if you grow up in (let’s say) a deprived inner city environment that is physically ugly, crowded, occasionally violent, where there’s never enough money, where crime pays (at least in the short-term), where the government is seen as an intrusion and threat, where your school tells you to rein in your expectations, where you are immersed in a media that celebrates everything you don’t have, that’s going to affect your values. As Jerome Kagan, the great neuro-psychologist, recently put it, the best prediction for depression is poverty. (On the other hand, you may very well end up with more resilience than someone from a more protected background, and a driving ambition to either reform your community, or escape it – both quite different to the ‘gratitude’ the Templeton Foundation wants to foster).

So I think that if you want to sell values / character education, you need to be aware of this problem. You need to be aware of the dynamic interplay between environment and values, rather than focusing exclusively on the one or the other. And you need to ask yourself: what is the connection between values and politics – or between the cultivation of a good character, and the cultivation of a good society? In the service of what political ideology are you teaching values? And you can’t say ‘character has nothing to do with politics’. That in itself is a political, libertarian, laissez faire response.

I worry (and I’m not the only one) that a character education course that emphasizes optimism and gratitude is going to be laissez faire and in the service of the status quo. The emphasis on public service can also be quite laissez faire. It’s a public school ethos dedicated to serving Queen and Country – serving, rather than trying to reform. However, character education is not necessarily in the service of the status quo. There’s also a great tradition of values education on the Left, which tries to train young people both to engage with their society and change it – like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, for example.

Ideally, character education would not drill young people in any one ideology, whether that be laissez-faire capitalism or Quaker reformism. It would give them the capacity to critically reflect on all such values, to be aware of their flaws, to try and choose the best path for themselves and their society. It wouldn’t ignore politics (we’re trying to create good citizens after all) but it wouldn’t become mindless propaganda either. That sort of nuanced approach is not easy. It takes money and leisure – and the sort of confident teacher who thrives on challenging feedback from their well-informed students. That’s why Aristotle thought philosophy could only the pursuit of propertied gentlemen – it’s hard to do well on a mass scale.

West Point cadets

There’s a danger, again, of a class divide in our approach to values education. Take the US Army, which has long tried to teach values and character. The officer class study Hellenic philosophy at West Point, as part of the Cadet Leader Development Studies course. They get the opportunity and leisure to consider and reflect on values in a manner worthy of autonomous sovereign agents (or gentlemen). The privates, meanwhile, get drilled in resilient thinking by Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course. Their spiritual fitness is evaluated by a computer questionnaire and given an automatic score. There is no leisure to reflect on or criticise the values in which they are drilled. You couldn’t have an entire army of autonomous philosophers, could you? That has to be confined to the officer class (so the argument goes).

But a democratic society of equals is different to an army. Are we prepared to try and educate a whole society of autonomous citizens capable of critical and reflective thought? Or is that just for the lucky few, while the masses get drilled in unquestioned good habits?

I’ll end with a quote from Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where Nell, the young orphan, learns the meaning of intelligence:

[Nell says:] “The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code– but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”

“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it– they grow up to be smallminded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel– as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

This week’s highlights from the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

Welcome to new subscribers – lots of you have subscribed in the last week. Hope you enjoy the newsletter, it typically veers between interesting links on the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being, and the occasional brief essay about something that’s caught my eye. This week will be mainly links (phew!)

On Wednesday we had our biggest-ever meeting of the London Philosophy Club, in the main hall at Conway Hall.We discussed the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern cognitive therapy (which I also discussed in this article in The Times this week) and more generally the tricky relationship between science and ethics. It was great – you can read a brief write-up here. There will be a brief segment about it on the BBC World Service on Saturday, on the World Today Weekend show (I’ll post the link on the blog). LPC also got a write-up in a Spanish paper this week.

The Skeptic movement had a major policy success this week, when they managed to get libel reform into the British government’s legislation programme. This means Skeptic journalists like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh can say that a bogus health remedy is bogus without getting sued. Congrats to the Skeptics – that’s a great result and shows what an organised and committed movement can do. I had the pleasure of meeting Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall, who runs Skeptics In the Pub, and has just started working at Conway Hall. I also got to meet Neil Denny, host of the Skeptic podcast Little Atoms, when I was on his show last week. Two people who have helped the Skeptic movement grow in the UK.

Conway Hall has a festival coming up on philosophy and film by the way, at the end of June, at which London Philosophy Club is doing some events. Details here.

Facebook has got into social engineering – it’s launched a feature where people can announce they have agreed to organ donation, as a sort of online organ donor card and also as a way to encourage other people. Networked empathy, it has been dubbed, or ‘easy virtue’. Meanwhile, the Atlantic covered an academic conference that brought together some stars of viral YouTube videos, including that anesthetized kid after the dentist and Two Rainbows Guy. Love that guy! One of the topics the conference explored was how internet memes can spread racial prejudices, or challenge them – like ‘shit white girls say about black girls‘, which I enjoyed.

Some education stories: Michael Gove, UK education minister, gave a speech warning our society was becoming more and more unequal because the 7% who are privately-educated get all the best jobs – even the radicals are posh, like George Monbiot (who reacted with wonderful indignation and a call to close all private schools). One could, at least, take away their charity status.

Private schools like Wellington are trying to spread the success of the private school model by setting up chains of academies, which is more than some other independent schools are doing. But the success of such schools is not just a question of ethos or teacher skill. It’s a question of wealth, of how much money is spent per pupil, and the inequality of the social and economic environments in which British children grow up. I don’t think you can dodge the inequality problem by focusing entirely on character and values (as David Cameron has tried to do).

The New York Review of Books has an interesting review of a new book on the problems facing US universities at the moment (not enough money for public universities and community colleges, while wealthy private colleges perpetuate social inequalities through their admission policy).

Meanwhile, I recently discovered the brilliant 1980s BBC TV comedy, A Very Peculiar Practice, thanks to a Guardian article about the best TV shows ever, which puts it at number 5. It’s about a medical practice at a British university during the Thatcher era (inspired by the writer’s time at Warwick University), and is so funny and intelligent about campus life, eccentric academics and the various competing philosophies of higher education and well-being. The doctors in the campus practice include a drunk Scottish disciple of RD Laing who wrote a book called Sexual Anxiety and the Common Cold and who finds a psycho-sexual cause for any health complaint (even appendicitis); a bisexual feminist doctor who attacks the phallocentrism of the patriarchal university system (‘illness is something men do to women’); a neoliberal doctor who takes consultancy fees from Big Pharma to prescribe students tranquillizers; and a bleeding heart liberal who isn’t sure what he believes. It’s so good! There’s an episode on YouTube, but I’d go ahead and order the DVD, it’s such an intelligent and funny take on higher education.

The importance of a balanced diet

Time magazine caused a big kerfuffle with its cover photo this week of a mom breast-feeding her four-year-old son – the story is about ‘attachment parenting’ ie letting your children breastfeed and sleep with you until they’re six or so. Sounds like something from Martin Amis’s London Fields. It’s a pretty funny cover (not sure the child will thank his mother for the publicity in later years) although mothers complained it has sensationalised an important and sensitive issue.

The Occupy movement has published is May manifesto – less work, more benefits, higher taxes. How will we pay for it? Tax the 1%, Jeffrey Sachs tells the US government in his new book, The Price of Civilisation, and stop spending $900 billion a year on the military – six times what it spends on education.

In the UK, government education spending is being cut to cover the deficit, particularly on higher education (tuition fees) but also on youth services and early care services, where there is not private money to step in. The City needs to do more to pay its social debt or it can expect more protests. One bit of good news is a new youth academy being set up in Hackney by Plan B – why are twenty-year-old rappers leading the way and not rich British businesspeople?

Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are, sadly passed away this week. Here’s an article considering his work from a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

Congratulations to the School of Life on its new series of self-help books which launched this week. I’m speaking at the School of Life this coming Tuesday about ancient philosophy, cognitive therapy and the politics of well-being. Come along!

Here’s a good example of citizen journalism: one girl at primary school has started to photo-blog her school’s lunches (see right). Shocking stuff. Jamie Oliver has already tweeted his support for her fearless campaign.

No more newspaper reviews of the book so far this week, hopefully one in Observer on Sunday, although Richard Layard did say something nice about it, which is very kind of him considering I take a few jabs at his Utilitarianism in the book.

Finally, something for the weekend: lovers of dance music might enjoy this archive of radio mixes from DFA (the label set up by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Tim Goldsworthy of UNKLE). Some wonderful mixes for you to bop to.

Right, that’s enough for this week. Usually it’s more about philosophy and psychology, there was just more good stuff on education this week.

See you next week,


Bhutan’s problematic definition of well-being

The UN Happiness Conference last week looks to have been a fascinating event. The Prime Minister of Bhutan sent me a giant Willy Wonka-esque invitation, for which I’m grateful, but wouldn’t pay my air-fare, for which I’m lingeringly resentful (not really). Anyway, I didn’t go, but have spent this morning reading through some of the material that came out of it.

The main event was the publication of The World Happiness Report, edited by Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Layard and John Helliwell. Interesting that Sachs, once a champion of ‘shock therapy’ and the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, should have climbed on-board the happy train.

In fact, Sachs seems to be making a bid to be the train-driver – he wrote the intro to the report, which seems odd, seeing as he’s a recent convert to well-being ecomomics, while Layard has been banging on about it for over a decade. Anyway, Sachs (who says he’s an Aristotelian) has clearly reigned in Layard’s ultra-utilitarianism. There are five or so references to Aristotle and the Stoics in the report, many more to the Buddha, and not one to Layard’s beloved Jeremy Bentham. Sachs opines loftily in the introduction that western economists’ pursuit of GDP is “completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages”. Oh really Jeff? Do we need shock cognitive therapy?

Despite Sachs’ attempt to put himself forward as the global guru of love, the conference really marks another huge success for Richard Layard, who to my mind is by far the most influential British intellectual today – partly because of his success in British mental health policy and the spread of CBT, but also because of the global influence of the happiness agenda he has pushed.

Although there are many aspects of Layard’s agenda that I welcome (its support for CBT in particular) I remain wary of the agenda because I think utilitarianism and positivism can be too monist and authoritarian: they force an entire country to follow one particular philosophy of the good life, which they insist is ‘scientific fact’. That’s what John Stuart Mill warned in On Liberty, where he spoke of the danger of a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and insisted we need to encourage diversity, experimentation, non-conformity, and the right of people to pursue their own good in their own way. Layard, I suspect, would see all that as rank individualism.

The happiness movement often seems a bit bullying to me: the happy / extrovert / optimistic majority telling the introvert / pessimistic minority to get with the programme…or else! Like Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, saying that the 25% of the population who aren’t naturally optimistic are, basically, sick. Look, for example, at this cartoon, The Pig of Happiness, made by David Cameron’s former room-mate after he had a breakdown (no, really). Notice in the video how the entire farm converts to the pig’s vision of happiness. It’s the utilitarian version of Animal Farm.

The warning about too monist an approach to well-being was made well by Martin Seligman, father of Positive Psychology, in his little presentation at the UN conference. He writes that his own well-being theory is plural: he puts forward five different definitions of well-being (he calls it PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaningfulness, Achievement), and adds: “This plurality of well-being is why economist Richard Layard’s important argument that “happiness” is the final common path and the gold standard measure for all policy decisions does not work.”

I welcome Seligman’s more pluralist approach to well-being. But I disagree with him that meaningful happiness, achievement, engagement etc can be objectively and scientifically measured using simple automated questionnaires, as he thinks it can. What the Greeks called eudaimonia is quite a subtle concept – it takes a lifetime to think about it and learn to practice it in one’s life. If you think that governments can easily measure it using computer questionnaires, then you’re opening the door to a quite intrusive, bureaucratic and coercive politics of well-being, which forces people to fit into boxes rather than encouraging them to think for themselves.

Look at the example of Bhutan, the host of the UN Happiness Project conference. Bhutan has, since the 1970s, measured Gross National Happiness (GNH). A paper in the World Happiness Report from the Centre for Bhutan Studies explains to us how Bhutan has defined and measured GNH.

We discover that a third of Bhutan’s ‘psychological well-being’ indicator is constituted by measurements of a person’s spirituality: ‘The spirituality indicator is based on four questions – they cover the person’s self-reported spirituality level, the frequency with which they consider karma, engage in prayer recitation and meditate. The indicator identified 53% of Bhutanese people as adequate in terms of spirituality level.’

This is obviously problematic. Firstly, there’s the practical question of whether you can accurately measure a person’s genuine level of spiritual attainment simply by asking them how spiritual they are (the same problem applies to measuring the meaningfulness of their life by asking them how meaningful it is). Such a measurement rewards the smug and complacent – how would Socrates score on such a questionnaire?

Secondly, there’s a liberal problem: Bhutan’s GNH measures people’s well-being according to how far they accept Buddhism. If you don’t accept Buddhism, you’re unwell.

We also read that Bhutan’s GNH includes measurements of Bhutanese people’s ‘cultural diversity and resilience’. This measurement is reached by measuring to what extent the interviewee speaks the mother tongue, to what extent they agree with ‘good values, eg Buddhism’, and to what extent they agree with Driglam Namzha, or The Way of Harmony, which is the majority culture’s ‘expected behaviour of consuming, clothing, moving’ etc. So it’s not a measure of cultural diversity at all – quite the opposite!

Around one eighth of the population, the Nepalese ethnic minority, failed to speak the mother tongue fluently and failed to follow the Way of Harmony, and they were forced into refugee camps in the 1970s and 1980s – many of them are still there. That’s a clear example of how utilitarianism can lead to a tyranny of the majority, as John Stuart Mill warned.

And before we declare that ‘we’d all be happier in Bhutan’, as the Guardian did rather exuberantly, let’s remember that only a third of Bhutan’s population has had even six years of schooling. This is a rural, semi-educated, semi-literate monoculture (well, it is now the ethnic minority has been kicked out). You will never get an entire western, liberal, educated country to sign up to one philosophy of well-being – not without using the army anyway.

We need a more pluralist approach to well-being, one that balances the science of well-being with the philosophy of well-being, which recognises it’s not enough simply to have ‘meaning’ in your life – the question is whether the meaning you have is worthwhile. It’s not enough to have relationships – are they good relationships? It’s not enough to have ‘engagement’ – is it worthwhile engagement? This is what philosophy can teach us – how to exercise the practical reasoning to arrive at appropriate ethical life-decisions.

I’ve been reading the Pragmatist philosophers this week – John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce and others – and they really understood the need to find the right balance between experimental psychology and ethical philosophy (or practical reasoning, done alone and especially in groups or ‘communities of inquiry’). Dewey wrote:

A moral situation is one in which judgment and choice are required antecedently to overt action. The practical meaning of the situation–that is to say the action needed to satisfy it–is not self-evident. It has to be searched for. There are conflicting desires and alternative apparent goods. What is needed is to find the right course of action, the right good. Hence, inquiry is exacted: observation of the detailed make-up of the situation; analysis into its diverse factors.

Matthew Lipman, the father of Philosophy for Children (P4C), wrote:

it was Dewey who, in modern times, foresaw that education had to be defined as the fostering of thinking rather than as the transmission of knowledge… reasoning is sharpened and perfected by disciplined discussion as by nothing else and that reasoning skills are essential for successful reading and writing; and that the alternative to indoctrinating students with values is to help them reflect effectively on the values that are constantly being urged on them.

That’s why I think Positive Psychology, and the ‘happiness agenda’ in general, really needs more philosophy in it. Well-being can’t be ‘transmitted’. It has to be reasoned towards.

I honestly think the evidence-based science of well-being from CBT and Positive Psychology can be balanced with more practical / communal reasoning in the model of Dewey and Lipman. That’s what I argue in my book (out in less than a month!) As a great example, here is a new course from Yale’s Open University, which combines ancient philosophy with insights from cognitive and positive psychology.I’d love to see this kind of course freely available for all undergraduates (in fact, we just pitched for funding to do that at Queen Mary).

Some more good stuff: The New Economics Foundation’s Laura Stoll produced a very useful report summarising where we are after 30 years of well-being policy. The US government is considering starting national well-being measurements.

In true Neo-Aristotelian fashion, well-being scientists have started to ask why it is watching tragedies enhances our well-being.

Finally, here’s an important paper from psychologists at KCL pointing out that 10-15% of the population will experience ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ (OOEs) like hearing voices, and that such experiences are not always distressing – they can actually be emotionally fulfilling and meaningful, if the person finds a way to integrate them. We need, the authors argue, to find a way to normalise such experiences and integrate them back into our culture. I couldn’t agree more.

See you next week,


IEA slams the politics and economics of happiness

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – the UK’s oldest think-tank and a leading source of right-wing thinking in the UK – has published a new book harshly criticising prime minister David Cameron’s initiative to measure national well-being. You can read it here. I haven’t had time to read it myself yet, I’ll try to do so over the weekend, but it looks juicy and thought-provoking. Have a look at the executive summary, below. It says:

  • The idea put forward by the British government that economists and politicians pursue policies directed towards maximising GDP is a ‘straw man’. Government has always had a multitude of different objectives and government policy would be very different today if economic growth were the single priority. [This sounds fair enough.]
  • Explicit attempts by government to control GDP, or rapidly increase GDP growth, have normally failed. Such a target- driven mentality is part of the conceit of central planning. Attempts to centrally direct policy towards improving general well-being will also fail. [One could still have centrally-planned initiatives to improve well-being, such as increasing the number of therapists out there, as this government has done. I’m just not sure such efforts will make much of a difference to ‘national well-being’ charts, which remain stubbornly flat.]
  • Contrary to popular perception, new statistical work suggests that happiness is related to income. This relationship holds between countries, within countries and over time. The relationship is robust and also holds at higher levels of income as well as at lower levels of income. This calls into question the assertion that people are on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ that prevents them becoming happier as their income rises beyond a certain level of income. [Well, I’m sceptical of any arguments from national happiness measurements, but I’ll have to look into this further.]
  • This new work, using a data set of 126 countries, shows that the correlation between life satisfaction and the log of permanent income within a given country lies between 0.3 and 0.5. There is a similar correlation between growth in life satisfaction and growth in income.
  • There is no evidence that equality is related to happiness. Indeed, the proponents of greater income equality admit that they are unable to cite such evidence and instead rely on very unsatisfactory forms of indirect inference. The clearest determinants of well-being would seem to be employment, marriage, religious belief and avoiding poverty. None of these is obviously correlated with income equality.
  • The government is under pressure to bring in further legislation to promote ‘well-being at work’. This includes, for example, legislation on parental leave. The theoretical and empirical case for such legislation is weak. There is no relationship between objective measures of well-being at work and the extent of employment protection legislation, unionisation, and so on. Given the relationship between well-being and employment, any form of employment protection legislation that led to more temporary employment or reduced employment would be detrimental to well-being.
  • A comparison across 74 countries finds that government final consumption negatively affects happiness levels and that the negative influence occurs regardless of how effective government bureaucracy is or how democratic the country is. Increasing government spending by about a third would cause a direct reduction in happiness of about 5 to 6 per cent. Centralising government decision-making is likely to lead to more intrusive government and lower wellbeing.
  • If people wish to maximise their well-being and are the best judges of their own well-being they will take decisions about how to use their economic resources to pursue their own goals. We should allow people’s preferences for well-being to be revealed by their own actions rather than through surveys of what people say they prefer. [I guess, Cameron, Layard and other ‘libertarian paternalists’ like Matthew Taylor of the RSA would say that people are not the best judge of their own well-being, therefore they need scientific experts to guide or nudge them towards it.]
  • Happiness measures are short-term, transient and shallow measures of people’s genuine well-being. [Fair enough – I agree. But the last several points have all been making moral and policy arguments based on happiness measurements. So are happiness measurements shallow and disregardable, or not?]
  • Those who wish to use happiness economics in public policy have no effective way of determining whether an increase in well-being should be traded against justice, moral values or a decrease in freedom. It is a utilitarian philosophy which applies a principle that many might use in their own lives to the organisation of society as a whole. Applying such an overarching principle to the organisation of society as a whole is very dangerous.

I particularly agree with this last point. It’s fine for an individual to choose to be a Utilitarian, but I find it incredible, bizarre and worrying that our government should have seen fit to sign the entire country up to Utilitarianism – without even asking our consent! Not even John Stuart Mill agreed with Benthamite Utilitarianism, and he was raised by Bentham. Yet somehow or other, we now live in an officially Utilitarian country with one scientific definition of well-being we all must fit into. And this David Cameron calls ‘post-bureaucratic government’…

Alastair Campbell on the politics of happiness

Here’s a nice piece by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, on the politics and philosophy of happiness. Campbell has bravely been very open about his struggles with depression, and I think he’s done a lot to change perceptions of mental illness – because he is so well-known as a bruiser / tough guy / big gorilla of Westminster. What I mean is, he has shown that mental illness can go side-by-side with strength and high functioning, and has made it easier for other men to admit to depression without being perceived as weak.

An interesting passage from the article:

By asking the question “Am I happy?”, and via the answer setting out what I mean by happiness, there is a political route that can be taken, by asking another question – “Can politics deliver happiness, and should it try?” It is a question that, among others, the prime minister, David Cameron, has been asking. There is much I disagree with Cameron about. I think some of his policies will directly cause unhappiness among some of his electorate. But the idea that happiness should at least be considered when putting forward a policy proposal is a good one. About halfway through Tony Blair’s premiership, his policy advisers tried to interest him in this agenda, presenting him with a paper, “Life satisfaction and its policy implications” [does anyone know where I can find this report?]. He didn’t really go for it. It is Cameron who is taking up some of the ideas presented to the predecessor on whom he sometimes models himself. There will be scepticism about his commitment. But I hope he is serious.

Interesting that Blair should have rejected the idea of measuring well-being. Nonetheless, I would argue that the ‘politics of well-being’ really started during the New Labour years, and was very much a product of its post-Thatcheritee touchy-feely ethos. I would say one key moment in the emergence of the politics of well-being was the publication by the New Labour think-tank, Demos, of a pamphlet called The Good Life in 1998. Demos was set up by Tony Blair’s former head of policy, Geoff Mulgan, who became a real champion for the politics of well-being, both at Demos and subsequently at the Young Foundation – he’s also one of the founders of the organisation Action for Happiness.
Another key moment in the emergence of the politics of well-being was the establishment of the national curriculum subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which started off as a school subject in Southampton in 1997, before becoming a national subject in primary schools in 2003, then in secondary schools as well in 2007.
The third key moment for the emergence of the politics of well-being was the publication of Lord Richard Layard’s depression report in 2006, which laid the foundation for the establishment of a national mental health service in 2007, involving the training of 6,000 new cognitive therapists – though I believe this policy, known as Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT) was finally enacted under Gordon Brown’s premiership rather than Tony Blair’s.
Finally, the fourth key moment in the emergence of the politics of well-being was the publication of the Sen-Stiglitz-Fitoussi report in 2009, which led to the decision by the French government, and subsequently the British government, to measure national well-being and make it a stated goal of public policy.
This last step happened under David Cameron, who has been quite explicit in his support of well-being as a policy goal. Cameron’s Coalition government also stumped up £400 million in support of IAPT. However, it’s worth noting that Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove, is much less enthusiastic about Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning in schools than his New Labour predecessors, and that it looks likely this subject will be scrapped in a review due to be released this year.
Anyway, back to Campbell’s article. He suggests: “we cannot know if we have lived a truly happy life until the very end.” That is, in fact, exactly what Aristotle said as well. Call no man blessed until his life has ended – because fortune can come and kick you in the nuts. Well, he didn’t say those exact words, but words to that effect.

That’s why I don’t think you can really measure a person’s eudaimonia through questionnaires. To really evaluate a person’s eudaimonia, you’d have to wait until after they died – in fact, you’d have to wait until several decades after their death, until the dust of history has settled, and you can try and see their life as a whole, and all its impacts and consequences.

Alan Turing, for example, one of the inventors of the computer, had a fairly miserable end to his life – he was chemically castrated by the British government for being a homosexual, and later killed himself. No one celebrated his life or noted his death, and if you’d asked him how happy he was, in the last weeks of his life, he would probably have answered ‘not very happy’. It is only in the last few years that his genius and his contribution to society has been recognised. He lived a good life, even if it wasn’t recognised at the time.