Happiness – and how to find it
03 Apr 2011 | Geoff Mulgan
When we learn that household incomes have fallen for the first
time in a generation, that radiation levels are rising in the seas
off Japan and that regimes in the Middle East are again cracking
down, with a vengeance, on their own people, it is easy to see
Beckett once wrote that the tears of the world are a
constant quantity. Many believe this in their heart of hearts -
that the world is a cruel place and to believe otherwise is
Yet all of us know of places where people's eyes sparkle and
exude hope, and know other places where even the brightest hope is
crushed and where people's eyes are dull and despairing. The
implication is that although we cannot eliminate grief and sadness,
the tears of the world are not a constant quantity - they are,
instead, at least in part, a matter of choice.
That is certainly the implication of the mounting interest in
happiness that has led the government here, and in countries such
as France and Canada, to introduce a series of questions to measure
No government has yet taken the next step of reshaping its
policies to promote happiness, but the clear patterns that show
that levels of happiness tend to be higher in richer, more equal
and more democratic countries are strong proof that the tears of
the world are not constant.
In two weeks' time, this interest will take shape in a new
organisation called Action for Happiness, which will
offer access to the mushrooming knowledge about how we can
influence our own happiness, or the happiness of our place of work
or school, or our community and society. Some of this knowledge
amounts to common sense. Exercise helps; other tips are more
surprising: for instance, thanking people each evening for the good
they have done you during the day serves as a protection against
The flood of knowledge from psychology,
neuroscience and social research is fascinating and impressive. But
there are still huge gaps, and these gaps have radical implications
for how we organise innovation and research.
For much of the past century the best route to happiness was
thought to be economic growth, growth that was fuelled more than
anything by a constant stream of new stuff.
Wealth remains preferable to poverty and the queues for the
iPad2 show the continuing appeal of new things, as do the forecasts
that by mid-century the roads of India and China will, between
them, be making room for 800 million cars.
Yet for all the impact of technology on everything from cutting
carbon emissions (through the use of smart grids or hybrid cars) to
organising demonstrations (like UK Uncut) it is no longer so
obvious that the innovations that matter most are innovations
in things. Instead, your happiness is likely to be
most affected by a holistic childcare centre for children or a
hospice for the very old, a reading group or a bicycle hire scheme,
an urban farm or a timebank.
That innovations like this matter in reducing the tears of the
world is beginning to dawn on governments, big corporations and
foundations alike. These institutions can also recognise that the
traditional model that governed how ideas originated in
universities or in the minds of great intellectuals does not fit
very well with the reality of social innovation. This is much more
a matter of trial and error as people try to solve the problems of
their own lives.
However, for all its informal roots social innovation can be
much better financed, measured and managed. There is a clear
parallel with what happened in the last century in the harder"
sciences. For the Victorians, a dominant image was of lone
eccentrics, working in their shed with tubes of chemicals and
suffering the occasional explosion. Brilliant scientists such as
Marie Curie worked on their own or in small teams. Science remained
a field for gentleman amateurs.
In the 20th century, the very nature of science shifted to the
vast laboratories of companies such as General Electric, with men
in white coats and clipboards. Du Pont, for example, created a
central laboratory called Purity Hall - and by the late 1940s more
than half of its sales came from products that had been introduced
in the previous two decades. Innovation was industrialised and
became the foundation of many of the world's household names, from
Toyota to IBM.
Vast sums of public money were also channelled into fostering
innovation, nowhere more so than in the US where the cold war
prompted the creation of an unprecedented technological innovation
machine, stretching from the laboratories of MIT and Stanford,
through organisations like the National Science Foundation to
venture capital funds and startups. By contrast, innovation in how
we live our lives, in social solutions and social ideas, is
organised in a much more haphazard way, resembling far more the
science of the 1890s than that of the 21st century.
There has never been a shortage of brilliant innovators such as
Robert Owen, the founder of the co-operative movement, Florence
Nightingale (a great social reformer, as well as a statistician and
nurse), Ebenezer Howard (the founder of garden cities) and my own
predecessor at the Young Foundation, Michael Young, the founder of
dozens of new ventures from Which? to the Open
University. But we have not yet made the transition to scale and
system that science made in the early 20th century. It is nobody's
job to spot the most important emerging innovations, nobody's job
to finance them, and nobody's job to help them grow to scale.
Thousands of brilliant projects are experimenting with ways to
reduce unnecessary suffering - to alleviate depression or
isolation. But it is still a matter of luck whether a great new
idea gets funding or support. Governments that invest billions in
new hardware still find it hard to accept that they might benefit
just as much from systematic innovation in such things as child
development or cutting crime.
That this is changing is partly an effect of the rising
confidence of the people and organisations working in the field.
The award of the Nobel peace prize to Muhammad
Yunus was a key moment - his Grameen
Bank is a classic example of a social innovation,
providing small amounts of credit for poor women in rural
Most of its elements were not new; what was new was the manner
in which it was put together. And, like so many social innovations,
Grameen inverted existing power structures: in his case turning
peasants into bankers, just as others have turned patients into
doctors or students into teachers.
Another factor is the changing shape of the economy. If you ask
which sectors will dominate the economy of 10 or 20 years' time the
answer is not cars or steel or ships, let alone agriculture.
Instead, the industries of "wellness" look most likely to prosper.
Health is already a dominant sector in most societies and the one
most guaranteed to grow.
Business has been slow to grasp this shift but there are some
good examples of business engagement in social innovation. One such
is M-Pesa, which uses mobile phones in east Africa to provide an
entirely new banking system for poor people, without the costs of a
branch network. This is a classic social innovation that meets
needs and promotes happiness, but is being run as a commercial
The other new player is government. Barack Obama now has a small
office for social innovation in the White House and a $650m
education innovation fund, and many countries, from France to
Australia, have incubators for social innovation. The European
Union is shifting its huge research and development budgets so that
they are no longer just about hardware, but also about new
services, about citizens' ideas as well as scientists.
Ageing is a good example of the direction of travel. Life
expectancy is rising by around three months every year. Science is,
rightly, searching for drugs to arrest ageing or to slow the
advance of dementia. But the evidence suggests that many of the
most powerful factors determining how you age come from what
you do, and what you do with others: whether you
work, whether you play music, whether you have regular visitors.
What is more, many of the most promising innovations try to combine
medical support and technologies with this kind of social
Social innovation thrives on collaboration; on doing things with
others, rather than just to them
or for them: hence the great interest in new
ways of using the web to "crowdsource" ideas, or the many
experiments involving users in designing services. But it thrives
more than anything else on hope - a hope born of experience - that
the tears of the world are not constant.
Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of The Young
This article was originally published in The
Be a Happiness Activist, Politics of Happiness