The left and right of happiness

The persistence of David Cameron’s happiness agenda has undermined the left, providing an illusion of progress while infuriating neoliberals, says Craig Berry.

E-mail-sign-up Donate



In 2010 David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to measuring levels of happiness. “There’s more to life than money,” he argued. The pledge was first made in opposition, during the times of plenty.

David-CameronOstensibly, the implementation now of happiness measures seems foolish; given the stream of statistical bad news on the economy, it would be implausible for the government to claim any kind of policy success based on happiness statistics alone.

And yet the commitment survives. The Office for National Statistics included four questions on ‘ subjective wellbeing’ in the Annual Population Survey for the first time in April 2011.

Is the government making a rod for its own back? If happiness goes up they won’t be able to claim the credit, and if happiness goes down their performance on the economy – the very thing Cameron wants us to stop obsessing over – will get the blame.

Alas, there are a few more sides to this story: Cameron’s support for measuring happiness, alongside GDP, derives instead from his profound commitment to conservative ideology.

As such, this is the sound of the Conservative Party moving away, albeit very tentatively – and perhaps without the full backing of George Osborne – from neoliberalism. The economic downturn has not altered but reinforced Cameron’s point of view on this.

As New Labour’s ‘accommodation’ to neoliberalism and the Thatcher legacy became stronger rather than weaker – contrary to expectations – Cameron carved a space for himself in promoting traditional English values in contrast to Labour’s fanatical modernisation.

Measuring happiness became, for Cameron and his one-time guru Steve Hilton, a peculiarly contemporary aspect on this agenda. And this helps to explain why in 2010 the UK electorate, despite the instinct to look leftwards that tends to kick in following financial crises in capitalist societies, looked instead to the right.


See also:

Cameron’s attack on philanthropists is the latest nail in the Big Society coffin 11 Apr 2012

“You’ve never had it so good” has never been so wrong: Review of The Cost of Inequality 19 Feb 2012

TaxPayers’ Alliance make a mockery of themselves by denying wellbeing evidence 28 Jul 2011


It would be easy, and not unjustifiable, for the left to be cynical about what the government is doing.

But the left’s bêtes noires of recent decades, the neoliberals, are also cynical, and in some cases incensed. Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod of the Institute of Economic Affairs concede GDP growth does not itself increase levels of happiness; still, they argue, neither do other aggregate measures such as inequality, the level of public expenditure, and various health indicators.

And take another look at the speech on happiness Cameron gave in November 2010. He contrasts the pursuit of happiness in public policy with three shining examples of a neoliberal agenda in action: immigration, cheap booze, and consumerism.

The prime minister is therefore making the left’s job particularly difficult. But there is a major flaw in the government’s thinking. In terms of measuring social progress, the effectiveness of happiness measures are undermined by the fact that, as Johns and Ormerod point out, people always say seven.

The ONS asked people “how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’; ‘to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?”; and “how happy did you feel yesterday?”; across all three questions, three-quarters of people said seven out of ten. (When the question was posed in more negative terms, that is “how anxious did you feel yesterday?”, the vast majority said three out of ten.)

Differences based on gender, region and even class were negligible. The results for age are slightly different, given that happiness levels across the age distribution tend to be U-shaped (albeit less so in the UK compared to other similar countries, because our children tend to be relatively unhappy) – yet this seems to be a normal and perpetual aspect of the life-cycle, and not alterable through public policy.

In this context, seven becomes a mediocre and almost meaningless result. People in a wide range of circumstances say seven because what they expect from life has been shaped by their experiences up to that point. Most people cope, adapt, and look on the bright side of things. Some people don’t.

But here, in Shakespearean terms, is the rub: conservative ideologues like Cameron are perfectly content with this. Society can muddle through, seven-tenths happy, with progressive ideals and large-scale public policy interventions rendered futile.

An alternative approach to measuring happiness has been developed through the New Economic Foundation’s national accounts of wellbeing. This is based not simply on self-reported levels of happiness and anxiety; instead, the components of a happy, secure and worthwhile life are split up and assessed independently, with both subjective and objective measures. There is no single key to happiness but rather a jigsaw to be pieced together carefully.

If happiness became the central goal of public policy, it would offer the state a licence to intervene in our daily lives on a massive scale and, above all, as the NEF’s national comparisons make abundantly clear, a mandate to eradicate poverty.

Labour doesn’t really know how to respond. Just as with the Hilton-esque ‘nudge’ and ‘big society’ ideas, the party toyed with the happiness agenda in government, without any real conviction, when it co-opted Richard Layard, editor of the World Happiness Report published earlier this month, as ‘happiness tsar’.

Andy Burnham recently criticised the measurement of happiness by government, arguing instead that the government should be targeting ‘resilience’. But as psychologist David Harper shows, resilience is already part of Cameron’s thinking on this issue (if not the ONS analysis).

More importantly, Harper argues that ‘plans aimed at increasing individual resilience may have the unintended side-effects of increasing the self-blame of those who struggle in adversity, and supporting social policies experienced by some poor people as victim blaming’.

Clearly, the left should not be pursuing resilience at the expense of preventing the need for resilience. It should not be pursuing happiness unless levels of happiness become a demonstrable measure of social progress, which is unlikely.

Yet it cannot continue to pursue growth for its own sake. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Cameron has played a blinder on this one, even if he cannot be too exuberant about this in the short-term. Labour needs to change the terms of the debate.


Sign-up to our weekly email • Donate to Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.