Happiness is a Political Issue

I was delighted to be involved in the launch of Action for Happiness last week, giving a short speech on increasing happiness in the workplace. Over the last 60 years our incomes have increased substantially but surveys show our happiness has not increased at all. This “movement for positive social change” seeks to change that by focusing policy on happiness rather than just increasing GDP.

Action for Happiness details 10 actions to take for a happier life. These include doing things for others (“feel good by doing good”), connecting with people, being active and more. The launch received huge amounts of media attention but there has been some scepticism, especially from those who think actions like this divert from the key political issues.

Action for Happiness: Great DreamNow, running a company called Happy, I’m going to be pretty much in favour of a movement for happiness. Indeed the aim of Happy Ltd is to change the way people work in the UK to create happier lives. One question I asked at the launch was “How would your workplace be different if the focus of your organisation was on making people feel good?”

This is based on the belief that people work best when they feel good about themselves, a statement that most people agree with. I believe that those organisations that do make this their focus are not only happier, but more effective. Imagine what work would be like it people were valued and given freedom within clear guidelines. If there was a no blame culture, people were recruited and promoted based on their attitude and support for others. And, best of all, if people could actually choose their managers.

I see that as pretty radical change. Indeed I would argue that one of the problems with political movements in the past is their failure to take account of people’s feelings and needs. Many years ago I was part of an ambitious project to create a radical, campaigning Sunday newspaper. We had great ideals in what we wanted to change but created a terrible workplace and, as a result, also created a pretty poor product.

A real focus on happiness is not politically neutral. We know that the most happy societies are the most equal. That is why Scandinavian countries tend to come top of international happiness surveys. And the recent survey that found only 6% of the Chinese population was happy, in their now very unequal society, led to the Chinese government banning references to it. (Denmark came top with 72% happy.)

Inequality makes people unhappy. Poverty makes people unhappy. Consumerism makes people unhappy. A real focus on increasing happiness would lead to very radical change in society. Bring it on!

5 responses to “Happiness is a Political Issue”

  1. Fine words Henry.

    All I’d like to add if I may is that happy employees usually lead to business success and profit. Not rocket science. Of course the product/service offered by a company needs to be strong but it’s the people who lead it to profit.
    Some sceptics think the happy approach is a fluffy one… tell that to Zappos who sold out for $928m.
    I know you can also provide a list of examples of companies in the UK who are also ‘happy’ and profitable.
    So, what’s there to be sceptical about?

    Gary, (Q&A).

  2. Would it be too far-fetched to suggest that the Chinese are unhappy because most of them live in abject poverty in a Communist country with a deplorable human rights record?

    There is no correlation between inequality and happiness in rich countries, as both Richard Layard and (The Spirit Level’s) Wilkinson & Pickett have accepted. A large number of studies have attempted to find a link between inequality and (un)happiness and have failed to do so. It is simply untrue to say “the most happy societies are the most equal.” The idea that consumerism makes people unhappy is also empirically unsound, though hard to test.

    You’re right about poverty though.

  3. Chris – Fair pt on China but I think you are wrong about Layard and Wilkinson. Surely the whole argument of Wilkinson and Pickett is that unequal societies have worse health, less wellbeing and less happiness. Here, for instance, he argued this last summer: http://bit.ly/hC1KHc

    The international comparisons on happiness do show that rich countries are generally happier than poor ones but they do also show the more equal sociietes are happiest of all (see http://bit.ly/h17Rvo) – with the happiest 5 being Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Netherlands.

  4. I believe consumerism is at the heart of unhappiness. We are taught through our peers and media that we must consume to be happy, but this is very untrue. What it does is teach us how to be unhappy. We are always trying to purchase our happiness. We get into a cycle of purchasing items thinking it will bring happiness, find it doesn’t so try again. We are always chasing the demon, continually feeding ourselves with the realization that “that” wasn’t the happiness I meant to purchase.

    Our media is funded by commercialism which is based on consumption. For corporations to succeed and keep investors backing they need to grow. This can be done by a couple of means. One, they can get their current consumer base to continue to purchase goods and two, they can acquire more consumers. You will find their commercials and ads are based around that premise.

    Now on the first means, the corporations are always pushing new products claiming the old one is obsolete and therefore you need to purchase the new and improved item. This leads to the disposable society we have created. We always feel what we have is not good enough, therefore we must get rid of it and get a new one. This equates to, if I can throw away my unhappiness, I can go purchase my real happiness this time. This does not work. We merely accumulate more “stuff” and find ourself just as unhappy if not more unhappy due to the clutter of accumulated false happiness and the strain on our monetary resources.

    The second means, acquiring more consumers, is based on the concept of population growth. We know we are straining our mother Earth for her finite resources. Does this reflect in our media. Of course not. This would lead to a slowing of consumption, which is seen as the political and corporate evil. The media pushes into our belief system that if we slow our consumption we will go into a recession and if, how dare us, we reverse our trend of purchasing unneeded goods we will send our society into a depression. So, they advocate our growth. The church tells us to populate as long as the growing population give 10% back in tithe and the government gives us a small tax break, paid for by the taxpayers, to have more children. This results in a growing consumer base taught to spend all their earnings and into lines of credit on stuff that does not make them happy, but instead, adds to their unhappiness.

    Like I said, you can’t buy happiness, it merely takes away more of your space. Look at children. They are a perfect example. They always want more toys. “Mom, Dad, can I have that? I need that? I would be so happy if I had that.” So you give in and purchase it for them and think it will make them happy. It does make them happy, just long enough to realize it doesn’t. So it ends up in their big heap of unhappiness.

    We are no different when we grow up. We are always trying to purchase our happiness. That is why you will find your house and garage cluttered with our failed attempts at purchasing happiness and realizing we are unhappier with our accumulation of clutter and strained monetary resources.

    Happiness comes from within. The appreciation for what we are and what we have. Happiness does not come from focusing on what we aren’t and what we don’t have.

    Brian Schamp

  5. Henry,

    Those Gallup results certainly show that the Scandinavian countries are happier by that particular measure but it is a leap to infer from that that more equal countries are happier. You’ll notice that although there are dozens of graphs in The Spirit Level, there isn’t one showing happiness against inequality. That’s because there isn’t a relationship. http://bit.ly/fUBfTo

    Layard writes in his book Happiness: “there is as yet no clear evidence to show that inequality as such affects the happiness of individuals in a community… the assumption used to be that people dislike inequality. But increasing evidence finds that some groups (those who feel mobile or feel they are mobile) actually like it.” And Wilkinson has accepted that “there is no relation between inequality and World Values Survey measures of happiness.”

    There’s a wealth of research into this, although some of it is technical and necessarily equivocal. The studies of Ruut Veenhoven are a good place to start.

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