The issue of happiness has, almost un-noticed, become a key
political issue of our time. You can detect its importance in the
subtle changes in language senior politicians are using – talking
about well-being rather than welfare.
So what is going on? In part, politicians are responding to real
social and economic changes in society. The speed and scale of
prosperity in Britain over the past 50 years have been enormous
with living standards trebling. One effect has been the decline in
mass participation in a range of institutions: from football to
churches to political parties. In place of doing things with others
we have substituted doing what we want. There has been an explosion
of personalised leisure activities from gym membership to walking
the Munro peaks.
This economic liberation has brought with it social changes. Women
able to work and earn are freer to walk away from unhappy homes.
Traditional class boundaries have been eroded and deference has all
but disappeared from British society.
Yet, despite all this increased wealth and greater personal
freedom, we do not seem to have become any happier. Though national
wealth has soared, the measures of personal satisfaction have shown
no matching increase. Wherever there is a gap in the market you
will always find a snake-oil salesman – and sure enough
politicians, having identified a “happiness gap”, are limbering up
to offer policies to increase our sense of well-being. The
difficulty political parties face as they analyse how to deal with
the problem of happiness is that it may just be one to which
politics has no answer.
To start with, although personal satisfaction may not have risen
over past decades, it actually started quite high. So there may
well be little realistically that can be done to increase gross
domestic happiness by much. Digging deeper into the background
research there are a couple of striking findings. First, people who
exercise, play sport or work in the garden regularly are more
satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Second,
involvement at least once a month in a voluntary, collective
activity, such as a charity, gives as big an increase in personal
satisfaction as having your monthly salary doubled. Is this
No. What makes us happy is our friends, our families and our work.
The truth is that most of us know what we want and we know how to
get it. Big Politics in Britain is facing a classic crisis – it has
lost an empire but has yet to find a role. For all that leading
politicians might want to enter the terrain of personal
satisfaction, in truth there is no space for them – we are all too
busy with our own interests.
John McTernan is a political analyst.