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Riots show why the happiness agenda is vital

09 Aug 2011 | Mark Williamson

In the aftermath of last night's riots in London and other cities across the UK, people are shocked and angry. The images of burning buildings and streets in ruin are more like scenes from a disaster movie than something you'd expect to see in a prosperous country like the UK in 2011. There are far more questions than answers.

Although the chaos may have initially been triggered by a police shooting in North London, it now seems obvious that last night's rampage was more a case of mindless violence and opportunistic looting than a calculated response to a specific incident. I suspect very few of the masked youths marauding last night would even know the name of Mark Duggan, whose shooting triggered the initial violence in Tottenham. Two images for me today highlight the depths to which the rioters sunk: firstly there was the footage of the injured youth having things stolen from his backpack as he lay bleeding and semi-conscious; secondly there were the pictures of a charity shop having had its windows broken. Both were vivid examples of the senseless and callous nature of the rioting.

So what on earth does any of this tragic and inexplicable behaviour have to do with happiness? At a time like this people are rightly calling for a focus on security, law enforcement and justice. These events have undoubtedly caused much unhappiness, but surely how happy people feel should be the last thing on our minds right now? Well, of course the immediate priority must be on keeping people safe and preventing further outbreaks of violence. But if we stop to look at what might be the underlying drivers of this behaviour, many of these lead back to issues at the heart of the happiness agenda which Action for Happiness is focused on.

Let's revisit the big picture. Over the last few decades we've seen unprecedented increases in average incomes and living standards but this hasn't been matched by a corresponding increase in average life satisfaction. The reasons for this are complicated but, in short, by building a socio-economic system that promotes self-centred materialism as the route to economic progress, we've exacerbated inequalities and created a culture that brings out the worst in human nature. It's a culture that puts possessions and individual success before people and communities. It's why the percentage of people in the UK who say that "most other people can be trusted" has tumbled from 60% to 30% since 1970.

This culture has also contributed to the big problem at the heart of this weeks riots: a generation of disillusioned and disengaged kids that feel that they don't have any stake in society. People who mindlessly attack their own local areas have clearly lost any sense of connection to their communities. And when they place more value on looting consumer electronics and designer trainers than the safety and livelihoods of their own neighbours, it suggests a culture with it's priorities all wrong. As one commentator noted on Twitter: "The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42" Plasma TV".

Our young people are bombarded with messages showing success and happiness tied up in money and possessions. Yet for those at the bottom of the pyramid these things are simply out of reach. As they watch the rich and powerful growing in prosperity, the promised "trickle-down" effect of economic progress has largely failed to reach them. While not necessarily worse off in real terms, they are undoubtedly worse off in relative terms, which matters deeply at the psychological level. As the inequality gap has grown so has their anger at a sense of unfairness and the feeling that they're worthless in the eyes of our leaders and wider society. Some local commentators have said today that this was a "riot waiting for an excuse to happen" and to some extent I think that's true. When you feel you've got nothing, then you've got nothing to lose from lashing out.

Of course the current economic situation obviously contributes to the problem: the financial crisis and the largest cuts in public services for generations are causing many people great hardship and uncertainty. But the underlying factors run deeper than this.

Ultimately, many of the problems with disengaged teenagers can be traced to broken families and parents who are themselves ill-equipped to raise happy, thriving children. Many of these disaffected young people grow up without the essential ingredients for their well-being: unconditional love and clear boundaries. The absence of these emotional and behavioural building blocks was very evident on our streets last night: a complete lack of empathy for those whose livelihoods they were wrecking; and a total lack of understanding of the personal consequences of their actions.

A focus on emotional factors like love may seem naive at a time of such fear and anger. But there is a now very strong body of evidence linking secure attachment and emotional intelligence in early years to positive life outcomes, including better academic achievement as well as lower likelihood of involvement in criminal activities. Rather frighteningly there is also evidence showing that children who grow up without feeling loved and securely attached tend to place a much higher value on material possessions as a source of fulfilment. This is desperately sad as no Wii console or iPhone can ever make up for an absent or abusive parent. But perhaps it partially explains the shocking thirst for looting products which we saw last night.

Let me be very clear; what I've said here in no way condones the unacceptable aggression we've seen on our streets. Violence solves nothing. But we all need to look inwards and accept that all of us have some responsibility for creating the culture that has made this level of disengagement and anger possible. We need to reassess our priorities and pursue a fundamentally different way of life where we care less about what we can get for ourselves and more about the happiness of others. That is the only route to lasting fulfilment. At the heart of the happiness agenda is a passion to do everything we can to address unhappiness in the world around us, whether that comes from poverty, depression, inequality or disaffected youth.

Yes government needs to do more; yes criminals need to be brought to justice; but at the same time we all need to be the change we want to see in the world. An inspiring example of this attitude today has been the hundreds of ordinary people all over the country who have united together to clean up last night's mess and start the process of rebuilding their communities. Let's use this tragic and frightening turn of events to start a process of realigning our values and putting a greater focus on equality and the happiness of those around us, especially those at the margins of our society.

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Mark Williamson is the director of Action for Happiness

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