The Prime Minister must at least be given credit for pursuing an idea that he has long espoused, but which might be politically very inconvenient just as the austerity medicine starts to bite. Because David Cameron wants to measure things other than wealth when trying to establish the effects of government social and economic policy on people’s perception of their overall sense of whether or not they feel that their lives are improving.
The urge to cynicism and ridicule is hard to resist. Mr Cameron might be seen to be trying to “spread a little happiness” as Vivian Ellis’ old song sentimentally put it. Whilst imposing a severe dose of real hardship, his government is suddenly getting all cuddly and fuzzy, trying to distract attention from harsh reality onto the Disneyfication of vague feel-good factors and subjective perception rather than hard statistical reality. And whilst we’re all busy gazing at our navels and wondering if we’re happy or not with our lot in life, the rich can go on getting richer untroubled by concerns about justice. But no matter, because money doesn’t buy happiness any more than it buys love, and so it’s not that our relative poverty makes us unhappy, it’s that our envy destroys our sense of contentment. Stop looking at social inequality because that leads to dissatisfaction, and envy’s a sin anyway.
Actually, that’s not all cynicism, and there is a real element of the ridiculous in these notions of well-being and happiness. However, there’s more to it than that. Just because it would be possible to try and measure happiness in ways that are either ridiculous or distracting, all that tells us is that we should avoid those methods. It doesn’t mean that the idea itself is ridiculous. The fact that the Office of National Statistics has been charged with establishing a methodology, and that in so doing they are looking at international work on such measurements, should give us comfort. The ONS is not known for being either frivolous or ridiculous.
So, is there a legitimate purpose in trying to go beyond wealth in keeping track of social progress? I think the answer is yes, but with some serious qualifications. It is undeniably a true and real fact of human life that money, and the purchasing power it brings, is not the only determinant of how satisfied with our lives we feel. Whether it’s rehearsing the cliché that the best things in life are free, or our deep inner knowledge that things and stuff are not all there is to life, we know that feeling loved, supported, validated, having a sense of purpose in life, a feeling that we are making a contribution to the totality of human happiness – these things are more important to us than money alone. And, I might venture further, if they’re not, they should be.
And the qualifications? Well, take this business of the best things in life being free. Actually, they’re not. None of them. When I recently strolled along the valley of Dovedale in the Peak District, it re-energised my soul and made me feel good to be alive. It’s the kind of experience that is probably generally put in the free best things category. That would be a taxonomic error, and a big one. Quite apart from obvious matters such as if I didn’t have enough money to buy a car and put diesel into it then I would never have been there in the first place, there’s also the fact that in that particular case a lot of the beauty of the area is down to hill farming which is necessarily publicly subsidised otherwise it would disappear, and the landscape that we currently know and love would disappear along with it.
Even more important is the fact that concentrating on how happy or unhappy, fulfilled or unfulfilled, we feel with our individual lives must not be allowed to obscure how wider society impinges on us, even it doesn’t affect our own individual ability to make choices, or establish our personal sense of well-being. For example, I do not subscribe to the notion that concern about the gap between rich and poor, irrespective our our personal perch within the spectrum of wealth, constitutes the politics of envy. On the contrary, it constitutes the politics of outrage, for which I make no apology whatsoever. As long as the ONS methodology provides room for me to express how my personal sense of well-being is undermined by my unwilling participation in a society in which such extremes of poverty and plutocracy can continue to co-exist, and be permitted to get worse, then it has my qualified support. Otherwise it will be an affront to everything I hold dear, and that will not make me happy.