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The Politics of Happiness

21 May 2014 | Peter Kolarz

Action for happiness is extremely important. But we need political action as well as lifestyle action. There are many evidence-based things we can say about what makes us happy at an individual level - such as the Ten Keys to Happier Living. But there are also things we know about happiness and unhappiness at a wider social and political level. This article covers some of the most important points, which together might be termed 'the politics of happiness'.

Politics Of Happiness

1. Poverty makes people unhappy

There is an argument which suggests that people living in poverty are a lot more content with their lot than we might think, and can be just as happy as those living in wealthier circumstances. But this is a flawed argument. There have been many projects comparing levels of happiness and well-being around the world, with researchers using various approaches to measure 'happiness' and 'wellbeing'. Some ask people directly 'how happy are you?', while others compare objective indicators, like prevalence of alcoholism, drug abuse or mental health issues. Yet, despite differences in methodology, study after study shows that the world's poorest countries also tend to be the world's unhappiest, with Sub-Saharan Africa consistently coming out as the least happy region.

Poverty is not just limited to developing countries, though hunger, homelessness, fear of violence and destitution are of course more widespread in some countries than in others. Even in a country like the UK, poverty is rife: just recently, reports have shown an increase in demand for foodbanks with increasing numbers of people unable to afford to eat. Fuel poverty, especially among pensioners, continues to haunt the country every winter. And in a recent Shelter campaign, the homelessness charity noted that 80,000 children in the UK were homeless last Christmas. This is not just a tragedy - it is a disgrace! Of course individuals in these situations can still benefit from Action for Happiness's Ten Keys to Happier Living. However, these situations cause widespread unhappiness and the are very difficult for individuals to overcome on their own. We must work to end poverty, globally and locally, if we want a happier society.

2. Inequality makes people unhappy

The link between poverty and unhappiness is perhaps unsurprising. But social research has produced a more startling conclusion: although higher levels of income tend to make people feel more satisfied with their lives, this effect diminishes as incomes increase and from a certain level onwards higher incomes have no impact in terms of people's day-to-day happiness.

Why is this? Research suggests that once we have food on the table, a roof over our head, an education for our children, healthcare for our family, and some modest amount to spare to pay for, say, a weekly guitar lesson for your child or an annual holiday, we have most of the happiness that money can buy. Higher incomes, flashy cars, mansions, yachts and champagne baths appear to do little to increase overall levels of happiness.

But also, increases in average wealth mask underlying trends in how that wealth is distributed. Research shows that societies with big differences in income levels between rich and poor tend to experience worse health and social outcomes. For those at the lower income-end of society this is no surprise. But here's the fascinating thing about inequality: in highly unequal societies, even the richest people are less happy than the richest in more equal societies! Countries with low levels of inequality, such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland, where lower-income groups get more help from the state and the rich pay relatively high taxes, rich people are still happier than their counterparts in less equal societies like the UK or USA.

Across a wide range of social problems that have a detrimental impact on well-being - such as levels of addiction, mental illness, infant mortality, obesity or homicide - countries where the gap between rich and poor is smaller almost always do better. Just as with poverty, inequality cannot be dealt with solely by individuals' lifestyle changes; it requires political action.

Although social scientists have clearly established a link between equality and wellbeing, we don't yet fully understand why this link exists, in other words: what exactly is it about living in an unequal society that makes people, rich and poor alike, less happy? It could simply be that inequality is a sign of less social integration and trust between citizens. But another compelling explanation is that in a less equal society it's 'a long way down' when things go wrong in your life, with little or no social 'safety net' to catch you. This brings me to my next point.

3. Stress and fear of failure make people unhappy

The OECD regularly conducts studies to measure the educational achievements of children and teenagers across the developed countries of the world. School children from each country take tests in literacy, maths and science, so results can be compared between age groups in different countries. In the most recent study, the OECD researchers also asked each child some questions about their life, including whether they were happy at school. The results were startling: those countries that performed less well in terms of test results often had the happiest school experience, while the countries with the best-performing children often tended to be less happy. The extreme cases were Indonesia and Peru, who scored last and third-from-last in the tests, but took the top two places in the happiness-at-school-ranking. Meanwhile, South Korea, worldwide runner-up in test scores, had the least happy school children.

Fortunately, this does not mean that education makes people unhappy - there are some countries whose children do well in the tests and also report being pretty happy at school. These tend to be countries - such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Nordic countries - where schools have small class sizes, lots of independent learning and 'exploring', less standardised testing and where children are less likely to be divided into different types of school according to ability.

The link between high academic achievement and unhappiness applies chiefly in those countries that have turned their schools into 'learning factories', with long school hours, little free time, regular standardised tests and selections into high and low achievers. These school systems are designed to create a competitive workforce of the future: able to work extremely long hours and cope with high amounts of stress. This "rat-race" mentality, already visible in adult life, is in many countries filtering through into childhood, preparing people from an ever younger age for aggressive competition in the global economy.

There are several examples of the toll this global competitiveness is taking on happiness and wellbeing - including longer working hours and increasing prevalence of mental health problems. Our economic system has become one in which the 'winner takes all', and whoever works the hardest and the longest for the lowest price may yet be spared the threat of unemployment and social exclusion. Aside from the poverty and inequality that this system entails, it also forces people into lifestyles of stress, anxiety and denial of basic human needs; lifestyles that make us unhappy.

4. Unhappiness in childhood breeds life-long problems

We know from research in child psychology that unhappy or traumatic childhoods lead to difficulties in later life that can be hard to resolve. Individual cases of unhappy childhoods, brought about perhaps by a family breakup, a particularly bad teacher at school or a particularly nasty bully in the playground can of course happen anywhere, and may well cause that person to struggle more than others later in life. But we must also look at how, as a society, we treat our children.

In 2007, UNICEF commissioned a detailed study into child wellbeing in the developed, industrialised world. They assessed the wellbeing of children in each country in six dimensions (Material wellbeing, educational wellbeing, health and safety, quality of family and peer relationships, behaviours and risk-taking, and subjective wellbeing of children). Out of the 21 major wealthy and industrial nations, the UK came in last place! The USA was second from the bottom, while the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland were the four frontrunners. A repeat study in 2013 moved the UK up a few places, owing to improvements in some select areas - mostly related to that double-edged sword of material wellbeing - as well as to the decline of several European countries that have been especially badly hit by recession and youth unemployment.

Now, it is possible that childhood in the UK is so much less happy simply because of cultural reasons: as a country, looking after ourselves is just something we aren't very good at, and each individual should be encouraged and taught to do more to increase their happiness and wellbeing. But this is un-convincing: the countries that do well in this study, as well as the ones that do badly, line up too neatly with all the other points discussed in this article. The countries that have high overall childhood wellbeing also have low levels of poverty and inequality, strong social safety nets, education systems not too focused on competition and working cultures with less of an aggressive 'winner takes all' mentality.

In conclusion

For the UK, it is bad news then: we have among the highest levels of relative poverty in the developed world, alongside very high levels of inequality.  We have a work and employment culture that encourages unhealthy competition and drives many people towards stress and depression, either because they work too much or because they cannot find a job. We have social security systems that do less than others to look after the elderly, the unwell or the unemployed. We have an education system increasingly geared towards large classes, standardised testing, and competition and selection wherever possible. And perhaps worst of all, we are instilling into our children a lack of wellbeing that will make it immeasurably harder for them to be happy later in life.

As it stands, anyone in this country striving for greater happiness and wellbeing does so in a social, political and economic climate that is downright happiness-averse. If Action for Happiness is to achieve its goals in the long term, we need to change not just our individual behaviours, but the way in which our society is organised. Looking in detail at all those countries that achieve high levels of happiness, and learning from their successes, might be an excellent starting point.


Peter Kolarz received his doctorate in Sociology from the University of Sussex in 2012; he is a part-time lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, an Innovation Policy Consultant for the Technopolis Group, and a contributor to the online magazine BusinessWorks.


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