At Bristol & Bath Regional Capital we are bringing new funding possibilities to the community, so hearing top-flight economists giving their views was an opportunity we couldn’t miss.
The title of Thursday’s panel discussion in the Bristol Festival of Economics would seem to be asking an unnecessary question. Why would government want to do the opposite, make us unhappy? And then we realise how many government actions do have that – perhaps unintended – consequence.
Over an intriguing 90 minutes a packed audience considered whether happiness could be coerced, whether we should focus on perceived wellbeing or the factors that actually contribute to it, and the biggest question of the evening – how Danish should we be?
The panel of Susan Harkness (University of Bath), Will Davies (Goldsmiths), Nattavudh Powdthavee (Warwick Business School) and Dani Rodrik (Harvard Kennedy School), chaired by Chris Giles of the Financial Times, kicked off by discussing how to measure happiness, the way that women and men perceive happiness differently, and how we adapt to terrible life events and still remain happy.
A rapid audience show of hands revealed us to be moderately happy – around 50% reported levels of 4 to 7 out of 10, while the more ecstatic among us decided we were 7 to 10 out of 10. It was quickly pointed out that putting your hand up in public was not a statistically accepted method – and that the private, face to face questionnaire methods had a much better chance of being accurate, although all of this is founded on self-reported happiness, not on absolute happiness, whatever that might be.
Indeed there’s a theme emerging of relative happiness – are you happier than the person next to you? Maybe in this world of elusive absolutes relative, comparative happiness is the best measurement we can do. But that opens up the possibility that, in relative terms, I can make myself happier by making the person next to me less happy. Not the sort of community we hope to build in Bristol & Bath Regional Capital…
It’s well known that happiness has become a UK government mantra, and we heard how Bhutan has been measuring Gross National Happiness since the 1970s. To achieve an upward trend in happiness it seems you ought to work on the foundations that make people happy, on improving their life chances. It’s not just a question of improving incomes – once you get beyond about $75,000 a year, additional salary is not strongly linked to improvements in happiness. So what else can governments do? Dani Rodrik said that fundamental rights, freedoms and equalities are the foundations of happiness, and as these are generally in the gift of governments this was an area that governments could concentrate on.
So, what makes us happy? The chief influencers were unsurprising but perhaps not open to government influence – marriage is a very positive influence on happiness (although we quickly get used to it…), having children contributes in different ways at different life stages, but unemployment and bereavement are strongly negative. The conclusion might be that governments should work hard to ensure full employment and increasing life expectation, thereby minimising unemployment and reducing the incidence of bereavement. If they did so, there would be an electoral reward: good happiness ratings are a stronger indicator for government re-election than increases in traditional indicators like GDP.
If your aim is to measure increased happiness, then there’s a danger that you try to change the outward perception rather than the root causes of happiness. In Jobcentres, people are compelled to recite positive affirmations. They might feel better, but there aren’t any more jobs out there for them to go into. Similarly in schools, we introduce mindfulness into classrooms but don’t do anything to roll back the regime of constant pupil testing which produces the stress that the mindfulness is trying to reduce. Susan Harkness outlined the paradox of declining female happiness, even as women become more empowered at work. The situation has improved, but the horizon has expanded even more, leading to declining happiness.
As the discussion looped to a close, Will Davies put into words something that had been forming unfocussed in my head – that in a world of happiness programmes and therefore happiness measurement, we are by default focusing on the individual. Davies said it was sad that we are so introverted in looking for why we are happy or not, that we spend very little time looking outward to those who influence our lives and therefore our happiness.
Denmark was mentioned several times as an exemplar in happiness research and achievement. Should we, could we, become more Danish? Against the individualistic approach we had heard about, aligning a whole community, a whole country, along happiness lines sounded like a very good idea.
Concentration on happiness, it seems to me, means in the UK a concentration on the individual. Should we not concentrate on community too?
Congratulations to the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, organisers of the Bristol Festival of Economics, for a fascinating series of events.