Russia and Well-Being

This is an article I wrote for a Russian magazine on the well-being movement and its relevance for Russia.

Russia and the Politics of Well-Being

A new sort of politics has emerged in the last 20 years, which is changing the way people think about economics, society, and the role of the state. It is being called 'the politics of well-being'. Some political thinkers think it will have a big impact on political thinking this century. Geoff Mulgan, former head of the Downing Street policy unit under Tony Blair, says: "Well-being will be the major focus of government in the 21st century, in the way that economic prowess was in the 20th century and military prowess was in the 19th century.”

So what does the 'politics of well-being' mean for businesses and governments, and do we see it emerging in Russia?

The starting point for most thinking about well-being is the idea that, even though our societies are richer than ever before, we are not getting any happier. As Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Princeton University, says: "We've never been able to get what we want so easily. And yet research shows that we are not becoming any happier. So that suggests that we are seeking the wrong things."

The suggestion that economic growth is not making us any happier was first tested out by an economist called Richard Easterlin in the 1970s. He came up with the graph below, which maps people's levels of reported happiness against average income. As the work of the great social scientist Ed Diener has since convincingly shown, incomes have risen four-fold in the US since World War Two, while reported levels of subjective well-being have not risen at all. This being the case, many thinkers have asked if we should still be making economic growth and consumerism the main focus of our societies. Perhaps governments should try to improve not just income and GDP levels, but also, primarily, the well-being of their citizens.

At which point, sceptics among you may raise three obvious objections. Firstly, can you really measure well-being? Secondly, isn't it rather wishy-washy or hippy to say that money doesn't bring you happiness? Thirdly, should a liberal and democratic state get involved in how its citizens pursue their happiness? Isn't that their own private affair?

Measuring well-being

People have always had their own ideas about what makes people happy. Plato thought it was a life of virtue. The Buddha suggested it was a life free of passion. Marx thought it was a life of collective production. Free market theorists assert it is our ability to buy what we want. What has taken the happiness debate beyond philosophical speculation is the evolution of scientific ways of measuring what really makes people happy. Several social scientists and economists - Ed Diener, Paul Dolan, Michael Argyle, Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman - have since the 1970s been working on ways of accurately measuring subjective well-being. There's been some experiments with brain imaging, but most scientists agree now that the best way to find out how happy someone is feeling is simply to ask them.

So the well-being movement rests, to a great extent, on questionnaires asking people to rate how they are feeling at a given moment, on a seven-point scale, from miserable to very happy. Researchers have found that subjective levels of satisfaction tend to correlate quite accurately with 'objective' tests of happiness, such as brain scans. So people seem to be fairly accurate judges of how they are feeling in the present.

So what actually makes us happy? It's money isn't it? Obviously, being unemployed, hungry and deprived makes us miserable, so governments should do as much as they can to make us richer?

Well, yes and no. Research suggests that, yes, poverty does make us miserable. However, once your income has grown above a certain level, to the point where your basic needs are met, your satisfaction levels no longer typically rise. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and one of the major figures in the well-being movement, writes: "In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich - the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of $125 million - are only slightly happier than the average American." So that's why Roman Abramovich looks so bored all the time.

So becoming richer does not, apparently, makes us happier. However, we tend to believe that it will, and to make life decisions, and policy decisions, based on this belief. For example, a researcher at Princeton asked 700 adults to predict how happy a person who won the lottery and became a millionaire would be after a few months, a year, and several years. The majority predicted that the lottery winner would experience a significant rise in well-being over several years. But in fact, studies of lottery winners showed that, while their happiness levels rose in the immediate months after their win, they returned to their average pre-win level after a few months.

This suggests that perhaps we are simply born with an average level of happiness, and this level stays fairly steady throughout our life, no matter what good or bad things happen to us. Some people are simply happier than others. In fact, studies of identical twins who have been separated at birth have shown that a great deal of our psychology, including our average happiness level, is genetically inherited. Martin Seligman suggests that about 50% of every personality trait, including average happiness levels, is attributable to genetic inheritance.

However, a lot of evidence shows that we can, to some extent, affect our happiness levels by our thoughts, actions and life decisions. So how we feel is, to some extent, in our control.

How can we make ourselves happier?

Ancient Greek philosophers, particularly the Stoics, taught that we could change how we felt by changing how we perceived the world. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said: 'It's not events, but our opinions about them, which cause us suffering.' If we learn to change the way we habitually interpret the world, we can change how we feel, and become more emotionally resilient in the face of adversity.

Modern psychotherapy has tested this ancient Stoic insight, and found that in many cases it works . In particular, a form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is now the main type of therapy in western medicine, has shown that you can cure many emotional disorders, such as depression, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and other phobias, by making people aware of their habitual beliefs and ideas, and how these cognitive habits colour their experience of the world. You can then teach them to replace their negative cognitive habits with more realistic and rational ways of thinking.

For example, something negative happens to you, like you get fired from your job. You can then make this bad situation a lot worse by thinking irrationally about it. You might think 'I always get fired. I'll never get another job. I'm a loser. My boss hates me. How dare he fire me!' These are typical cognitive distortions. You're generalizing (I always get fired), fortune-telling and catastrophizing (I'll never get another job), labeling yourself negatively (I'm a loser) and mind-reading someone else's thoughts about you (my boss hates me). You're also taking very personally an event which might have as much to do with impersonal factors, such as the slow-down of the economy. So all these irrational and negative ways of interpreting an event are making what is already a difficult situation far harder to deal with, and you will probably end up very depressed and demoralized.

Instead, you could say to yourself, 'well, I wish I hadn't been fired, but it's happened now so I may as well accept it. It might not have been my fault, a lot of people are getting fired right now. Anyway, I did my best, and I accept myself even if I'm not employed. My self-esteem doesn't depend on my job. Who knows, maybe the job wasn't right for me anyway, this could be an opportunity to find something better.'

So you can train yourself to think in more rational and helpful ways, and when you change your beliefs, your negative emotions will also be transformed into more positive emotions. Psychologists now have a huge amount of evidence to show that CBT is very effective in treating emotional disorders, and helping people to recover from them in a very short time. CBT is probably the first form of therapy ever to gather this sort of hard supporting evidence - psychoanalysis never did, and always relied on a handful of dubious case-studies. This body of evidence supporting CBT has convinced the British government to put around £300 million into training up some 3,600 new therapists, mainly in CBT, to create the first-ever National Mental Health Service.

Lord Layard, the government's 'happiness czar' says: "One in six people in the UK will suffer from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety in their lifetime, and very few of these millions of people will receive proper treatment." Treating such mental illnesses, he says, should be a priority of governments in the 21st century. The British and Australian governments are also experimenting with teaching CBT-type techniques to young people in state schools, via classes in 'emotional resilience' and 'emotional aspects of learning'. This could be compared to the teaching of Stoic philosophy in the schools and academies of ancient Greece and Rome.

Some schools and health services are drawing on other ancient traditions as techniques for improving well-being. For example, western science is increasingly recognizing the benefits of meditation as a way of reducing stress and depression. Indeed, the only person who the neuroscientist Richard Davidson came across whose brain activity was entirely left-sided, without any apparent sadness or negative thoughts, was a Buddhist monk. Buddhist and Yoga exercises for controlling the breath are also increasingly being recognized in the West as very effective ways of regulating one's mood and improving one's well-being.

Well-being in Russia

So what does this have to do with Russia? In the 1990s, people in the former Soviet Union consistently appeared to be the least happy people in the world. Their society had collapsed, everything they had been taught to believe in had disappeared overnight, life expectancy was short, alcoholism was very high, the rule of law had disappeared, banks went bust, and bandits were in charge. Not surprisingly, the mood was grim. However, the state has since reasserted control, the oil price has risen, incomes have grown rapidly, and people have in the last few years gone on a consumer binge, as they buy a whole range of consumer goods that were never available to them before. The dream of capitalism has finally arrived in Russia.

But will this make Russians happier? I haven't found any recent studies of happiness in Russia, though you'd expect that average levels of satisfaction have risen as the economy has stabilized and people have risen above the poverty line. People can meet their basic needs, and live in greater safety and security than they did in the 1990s.

One would also expect, however, the improvement in satisfaction levels to rapidly flatten out, as has happened in other countries. In fact, a study published in April of happiness levels in China, another fast-growing economy, found that levels of happiness actually plummeted there from 1990 to 2000, even though salaries rose by an average of 16% per annum. The authors suggest that this is because, while average incomes rose, the inequality between rich and poor rose even faster, so even if you were getting richer, someone else was always getting richer than you, leading to high levels of restlessness and dissatisfaction. In addition, the rapid urbanization of that decade led to the dissolution of traditional communities and the growth in urban anomie, the authors suggest.

At the moment, the Russian government is still very much focused on improving the country's traditional economic indicators, such as GDP and income growth. We shall see if Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, shifts the focus of the government onto developing the country's 'human capital'. After all, one of the duties of the president, as enshrined in the Russian constitution, is "to secure the well-being of Russia".

In some ways, the well-being movement belongs in Russia, where Russian intelligentsia like Tolstoy or Soloviev once searched for the Good Life, and tried to follow that life and teach it to others. The well-being movement is, finally, about the power of ideas to transform our experience and enrich our lives, and nobody believes in the power of ideas like Russians.