Geoff Mulgan: Put happiness on the election agenda

We should consider the effect of policies on people's wellbeing
Click to follow

The British public don't naturally associate politicians with happiness. Most hope that they'll keep public services ticking over and the economy on track but see happiness as something we struggle with in our private life. That could be changing. This year's election could be the first when party policies are interrogated not just for their effects on economic growth or the NHS but also for their effects on happiness.

The main reason is a flood of evidence now available – from psychology and behavioural economics, neuroscience and sociology – about what does and doesn't make people happy. It shows that although there is a strong genetic influence on wellbeing, people tend to be happier in democracies than dictatorships, with competent governments than incompetent ones and with equal societies rather than unequal ones.

Some evidence confirms common sense: for example, Henry James's comment that "true happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self. But the point is not only to get out, you must stay out. And to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand". Some is surprising: most people have a stable level of happiness, bouncing back from setbacks (like a disability or divorce) and lucky breaks (like a lottery win).

Over the past five years such evidence has started to directly influence public policy. Dozens of schools in Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire are teaching children how to be resilient and showing measurable results; lower depression, antisocial behaviour and better academic results. Some journalists mocked the idea of "happiness classes" – before meeting teachers and children who'd experienced it and became converts. Many cities are encouraging neighbours to talk to each other – responding to evidence that, on balance, we're happier when we know our neighbours.

Much of this work is being led from the ground up, by imaginative local authorities. But it's also seeping into national argument and policy. The Department of Health has steadily expanded investment in mental health services, last year announcing plans for counselling in response to evidence that two in five people made unemployed over the last year have experienced mental ill-health.

President Sarkozy is the only international leader who feels at home in this space – last year commissioning a group of Nobel Prize winners to advise on how France should measure its progress. But no British politician has seriously engaged with this field. David Cameron briefly toyed with it, suggesting two years ago that "it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general wellbeing". He soon got cold feet.

As the manifestos come out we should be asking whether politicians have considered the effects of their policies on wellbeing. It's not the only thing that matters. But it's a very odd political culture that sees spending on alcopops and cars, flat screen TVs and Chanel perfumes, as somehow more real than human fulfilment.

Geoff Mulgan is Director of the Young Foundation. He is co-author of The State of Happiness report, launched today by the Young Foundation and the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) and available from