A report published last week, commissioned by the Government, shows that the gulf between the best-off and the least well-off in society has widened rather than narrowed. This is shocking. Indeed, the gulf is now bigger than at any point since the Second World War. These findings follow hard of the heels of the Milburn Report, which showed that inequality has grown since Labour came to power in 1997. Gordon Brown has promised that, if re-elected, he will make "social mobility" a core priority. So will the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The main three political parties disagree about many things, but they are united over the importance of this.
Universities too are trying harder than ever to widen access and ensure that students from the least well-off backgrounds gain places. Steve Smith, vice chancellor of Exeter University, also said last week that although more underprivileged people are now applying to top universities, much more needs to be done to achieve anything approaching a representative sample. Oxford and Cambridge are zealous about achieving a wider social mix, offering pathways for children from the humblest backgrounds and from schools that have never sent a single pupil to them. They even hire football stadiums for giant rallies for parents and their children to learn more about what university life would be like in the cities of the dreaming spires.
Those unable or unwilling to be tempted by the allure of top British universities can find solace in watching The X Factor or Big Brother, hoping to exchange their humdrum lives for those of celebrities in their mansions and fast cars, where their lives can really begin. The clear message is one of escapism. Your current lives are boring and worthless, but material wealth and fame will make them worthwhile and real.
Aspiring to a better life is entirely right and runs with the grain of human nature. Rags to riches is the theme of much of the world's great literature. But the reality is that the vast majority of British children and adults will start and end their lives in very similar socio-economic circumstances. Dreaming of wealth and fame is harmless, and may even be a psychological necessity. Problems arise when the message absorbed is that only a place at a top university, a high income, or even a celebrity lifestyle, makes life worthwhile. Oxford and Cambridge are delighted to be attracting more applications than ever before. Those offered places and their families are rightly thrilled and proud. What is not always seen by the top universities is the intense disappointment and rejection experienced by many worthy candidates who have been led to believe that a place at their universities is all important.
Alongside instilling realistic aspiration, we should be helping people to celebrate and treasure the lives they have and will continue to have, rather than dreaming of a life they never will. Thanks to the work of Richard Layard, we now know much more about the correlation between material abundance and life satisfaction. In the 20th century, it was an accepted nostrum that economic growth and increasing prosperity were the major priorities of government policy, and of private endeavour. These priorities are increasingly seen as naive. An increase in income beyond a certain level does not necessarily
produce a happier life, while comparing one's life with that of others is a positive source of discontent.
President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on a pledge to boost France's economic prosperity. But then he had second thoughts, and set up a commission of experts, including Nobel prize-winning economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to investigate whether there might be better ways of measuring advances in society than the raw measure of GDP. In September, Sarkozy announced the commission's recommendation: shifting emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people's well-being. It suggested that governments change the way they think about progress, and concern themselves more with the quality of life than with material quantity.
The British government has jumped on the bandwagon. In December, it committed itself to a policy of "well-being in all". Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, has said that his department will work with all others across Whitehall "to ensure that policies consider the impact on well-being as well as informing future policy and research". The case for government taking well-being much more seriously was underpinned by a report last month from the Young Foundation, which found that psychological deprivation was much more important and challenging than material poverty, yet was not nearly as well administered to by government. "Being without a roof over your head brings you new rights. Having no one to talk to does not," wrote the foundation's head, Geoff Mulgan. Anxiety and depression are on course to double in the space of a generation, while the numbers of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs has quadrupled since 1990 to over 35,000,000.
Material greed is not only killing the planet; it is also killing the soul. Having a secure roof over one's head, clothes on one's body and three square meals a day are essential pre-requisites for a happy life. Beyond a certain point, however, increasing material affluence can lead to a diminished life. Joy and meaning come not from material acquisitions, but from what we might call spiritual enjoyments – human relationships, health, enjoyment of nature, of the arts, and of simply being alive. These cost little or nothing. One does not need to be rich to enjoy loving relationships and friendship, to be moved by novels, dance or art, to be transported by a sunset, hills or beautiful cityscapes, or to feel the joy of walking down a street a physically healthy being.
Spiritual as opposed to material enjoyments are of enduring, not transitory, value. A new car, house, or expensive holiday provide passing pleasure, which we boost by letting other people know about them, little though they want to hear. We have all allowed ourselves to be deceived by the deeply seductive allure of affluence.
How do we change? We all need to slow down, and give time and space to matters spiritual, to savouring our family, spending time with our friends, devoting some time to painting, music, or dance, being healthy, and enjoying nature. Taking time each day to be still yields quick benefits. My own sadness is that it was not until I was 50 that I began to realise how I had squandered my life striving for more status and money without realising the riches before me each day, right under my nose.
Let us all strive for greater educational and economic opportunities for all, especially for the least well-off. But, let us also remember that most will never achieve riches, a place at a top university, or fame, and that even those who do must often look deep in their lives if they are to find the meaning that eludes so many. The 21st century is witnessing a quiet revolution. Quality of life, trust and trustworthiness are steadily trumping the relentless pursuit of wealth, status and fame.