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.

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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.


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31 Responses to “The left and right of happiness”

  1. Pulp Ark

    The left and right of happiness #GoodSociety #BigSociety #DavidCameron #happiness #muslim #tcot #sioa

  2. why sohappy

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  3. GuruX®

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  4. leftlinks

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  5. BevR

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  6. left-wing hamster

    The left and right of happiness: by @CraigPBerry

  7. Hitchin England

    RT @leftfootfwd: The left and right of happiness: by @CraigPBerry #NewsClub

  8. Craig Berry

    RT @leftfootfwd: The left and right of happiness They have us where they want us: seven-tenths happy no matter what

  9. Craig Berry

    Thats the thing about measuring #happiness: people always say 7 Left at an impasse on this one

  10. Julia Motchalova

    The left and right of happiness | Left Foot Forward

  11. talia

    The left and right of happiness | Left Foot Forward: The persistence of David Cameron's happiness agenda has und…

  12. marilou lhotsky

    The left and right of happiness | Left Foot Forward: The persistence of David Cameron's happiness agenda has und…

  13. Anonymous

    “… Cameron carved a space for himself in promoting traditional ENGLISH values in contrast to Labour’s fanatical modernisation.”

    This may explain why he and his party are so roundly hated in Scotland. Some of us wish to be Scottish alone; some Scottish and British; some British and Scottish, but almost none of us desperately wish to be English.”

    In any case, we hear a great deal about these values, and on occasions, when an American President wants us to do some dirty work for him, how we share then with our kissing cousins, but does anyone know what they are?

    John Major seemed to define them as ‘the sound of cork on willow, and the sight of ‘elderly spinsters cycling to church on Sunday morning’. But whilst he was telling us all that this was how he saw Britain (how we laughed in Scotland given that these sounds and sights are almost never heard or seen here) he neglected to mention his fondness for Currie. The oft quoted, but little seen “fair play” was largely lacking in Major’s treatment of his Mrs Major over the Edwina affair.

    I can’t help feeling that measuring happiness is a nigh impossible exercise. What is happiness? How is it created? How long does it last? Is it politically motivated? Is it just the feeling you have when the dinner was magnificent and the wine chilled to just the right temperature, or when your company has pulled off a takeover that will make you a few million, even if it will result in 4,000 redundancies, or when you won £20 at the bingo?

    Cameron might be well advised to stop trying to measure things, which under an incompetent and unlucky government such as his, are likely to follow a downward trajectory, and concentrate all his efforts on trying to make life better for people, which must be somewhere in his job description.

  14. Amanda Hemers

    The left and right of happiness: In 2010 David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to measuring levels of happines…

  15. Harriet Elena Clarke

    The left and right of happiness: by @CraigPBerry

  16. Anonymous

    “Happiness” is irrelevant unless you can pay for food, shelter and utility bills.

  17. Anonymous

    It’s easy to adjust the buttons for so you can get a good result. He needs SOME good news, Trispw, if he’s to save himself.

  18. Clarebelz


    The most miserable times in my life is when I haven’t had enough to make ends meet, sitting in a cold damp house with no lights on, and no food in the cupboard (Especially during the tenure of last Tory government).

    Studies show that people who have enough income to pay for basic necessities, plus a little extra for a holiday and days/nights out, aren’t much happier if they receive more income that that.

    On the other hand, when I’ve has such an income, I cannot say that it has necessarily made me happy, but it was just one less thing to worry about. Environmental factors have been the primary cause of much unhappiness in my life; things I have absolutely no control over.

    The things that do make me happy are very clear to me though: fun with my cat; looking at the sky; planting flowers (although carers do that now); painting a picture; laughing with my mum and other people; a pint of real ale at the pub (when I can get there as I’m mostly too ill, and good conversation); writing; doing something kind for someone; composing a song and singing..etc, etc.

    As for Cameron’s ‘happiness study’, I don’t know how he has the gall. I don’t think I’ve ever got over the shock of reading ’21st Century Welfare’ in 2010. I am chronically ill, and as a result of his policies I will more likely than not lose my home. I needed therapy to come to terms with the personal consequences of welfare reform, but I still have to regularly battle with feelings of hopelessness and fear for the future.

    At present, I’m just trying to get through each day and enjoy my home and situation while I can. It took me years to renovate my home (still not quite finished), and make it and the garden beautiful. I’m very lucky. For the past 25 years I’ve lived on the edge of one of the nicer council estates (housing association now), in a semi-rural location. I can see mile after mile of fields as far as the Cheshire Plain, and can also see Jodrell Bank from my lounge window.

    Opposite to London, people like me will be forced out of our secure tenancies into the city to live where the rental for properties is cheaper, but even the Local Housing Allowance bears no resemblance to actual rents. I’ve lived in a rural location all of my life. No one wanted these homes, now it seems, even these homes are too good for the likes of us. I cannot imagine living in a noisy town. I already find it hard to sleep, but in general it is very quiet here and because of that it is therapeutic.

    The psychological affect on me has been and remains enormous. I’ve had no end of nightmares about it. The threat of losing your home, and your means of supporting yourself is so overwhelming at times that I have thought it would be better to be dead that to be forced out. When peoples’ futures are so uncertain, it’s hard not to get depressed, but I’m damned if I’m going to live in fear until the unthinkable happens.

    So Cameron, you know what you can do with your measure of national happiness don’t you?

  19. Catherine Brunton

    The left and right of happiness: by @CraigPBerry

  20. Irene Burton

    RT @leftfootfwd: The left and right of happiness …this'll give you something to think about.

  21. BevR

    RT @leftfootfwd: The left and right of happiness

  22. Foxy52

    RT @leftfootfwd: The left and right of happiness

  23. Simon Briscoe

    The left and right of happiness: by @CraigPBerry

  24. Mr. Sensible

    If Cameron wants to make people happier, he should call an election.

  25. Anonymous

    Ah, you mean he’ll make the good news up? Yes, I suppose he will. Although it’s hardly ‘fair play’, or ‘cricket’.

  26. Amanda Hemers

    The left and right of happiness | Left Foot Forward: The persistence of David Cameron's happiness agenda has und…

  27. Anonymous

    Make it up? Why, the measure will support his claims!

    And John Major was the cricket fan, this bunch wouldn’t know what to do with it.

  28. Anonymous

    But there is no left wing alternative, so who would you vote for?

  29. Anonymous

    My God Bot, I agree with you!!!

  30. Craig Berry

    @leftfootfwd @citizenjules anti-neoliberal but not progressive. ONS and NEF are quite far apart on this

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