Christina Patterson: Can governments make us happy?

What they can do is help with our health. They could try to prevent some of the conditions threatening to bankrupt the NHS

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:29

The other day, I went to a spa. The Jacuzzi was lovely. The sauna was soothing. And the Chinese doctor, who turned out to be Italian, was kind. He took my pulse, gazed into my eyes and explained that the flow of chi, or energy, was all about the emozioni. So what, he asked, was the state of mine? For a moment, I was floored. Then the floodgates opened. I told him about a row at work. I told him about the Japanese earthquake. I told him about a friend who had died. The doctor nodded gravely, and picked up a pen. In his beautiful Italian handwriting, he wrote out a prescription for lavender tea and a massage called "change in wind".

I thought of this when I heard that David Cameron's plan to measure happiness was starting this month. Just weeks after the census required people to set down, in block capitals, the name of whoever shared their duvet on a Sunday night in March, the Office for National Statistics will be grilling people about their mood. "How satisfied," it will ask, "are you with your life? How anxious did you feel yesterday? How happy did you feel yesterday?" And, "to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?". To which you can surely only reply "mind your own business" or, as I didn't, "how long have you got"?

You might think that a year when a government is cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs, decimating public services and preparing to throw thousands of people out of their council homes, isn't an ideal time to be finding out whether those people start each day by whistling a happy tune. You might think that those people might feel a bit like they did when they heard that the Prime Minister, who is a multi-millionaire, took his wife, perhaps for the first time in her life, or his, on a Ryanair flight.

You might think that those people might also feel like they did when they heard him say that he wanted us to "bring out the bunting" to celebrate the wedding of a nice young man to an alarmingly thin young woman. You might think, in other words, that those people might feel just a tiny bit patronised. And that the size of their smile, or their levels of serotonin, had about as much to do with the reality of their lives as that spa's concept of "wellness" did to my health.

If you thought that, you might well agree with Martin Seligman, who was one of the pioneers of the "new science" of happiness, and who has written books with titles like Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. Like a man who starts a cult, and then declares himself an atheist, Seligman says that he has changed his mind about the importance of being happy. "The word 'happiness'," he says, "always bothered me, partly because it was scientifically unwieldy and meant a lot of different things to different people, and also because it's subjective". Now, he says, in a book which, funnily enough, is being published next month, he prefers to focus on people's ability to "flourish".

His job as director of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, and his best-selling books (including one which claimed to be a "complete guide to successful self-improvement", but which turned out to be merely one in a lucrative series) has certainly enabled him to "flourish", in spite of a natural propensity to be in what he calls "the lower half of positive affectivity". But the trouble with making "positive emotion central to your ideas," he says, is "the evidence that most people have a 'set point' or 'set range' for their mood, meaning that whatever they do or whatever happens to them, they tend to revert to a certain level of happiness". Which may be another way of saying that success hasn't made him happy, or that brainwashing yourself into levels of optimism at odds with those thrown up by your genes is really rather hard work.

There isn't, I think, a man in the country who could match David Cameron for optimism. This is a man who still looks as smiley and shiny and pink as the day he popped out of the womb. This, after all, is a man who thinks you can blow a giant hole in public spending without affecting "frontline services", and that you can axe public services and replace them with volunteers. It's a man who can promise not to touch the NHS and then delegate its £100bn annual budget to a man who wants, like the producers of The Archers with Ambridge, to "shake it to its core". It's a man who thinks you can cut everything in sight, and still get growth.

But it isn't (apart from the obvious fact that he wanted the job so much that he would probably have accepted the post in an interim government in Tripoli) Cameron's fault that he became Prime Minister at a time when the economic outlook was looking slightly grim. And however much the two Eds might like to pretend that they would, if the electorate had been just a little bit more public spirited, be presiding over a country with Scandinavian levels of public spending, and Chinese levels of growth, we'd still all be facing mass cuts. A country's gross domestic product is only one way to measure its progress. What's wrong with measuring what Cameron (a bit like the spa) likes to call its "well-being"?

Well, maybe nothing. The happiness studies, after all, seem remarkably consistent about what makes people happy, or at least reasonably satisfied, and what doesn't. What does, to summarise all the books you now won't have to buy, are things like a happy marriage, nice friends, good health and fulfilling work. Oh, and money. Not truckloads of it, but ideally a little bit more than the man next door. Exercise helps. So, amazingly, does sport. So (but please, please let's leave politicians out of this) does dancing.

Some of this is stuff that politicians can help with. Some of it isn't. Politicians can, of course, parade their gorgeous wives, and whisk them off on highly photographed (cut price) minibreaks, but they can't, unless they decide to set up a partnership between Directgov and, rustle up spouses for us. They can suggest we all have street parties, but they can't find us friends. They can't, in an age of austerity, give us much in the way of a hand-out, and they can't, if they're cutting public funding, give us jobs. They can, by cutting our benefits, force us into low-wage labour, but low-wage labour isn't classified by the studies as "fulfilling work".

What they can do is help with our health. They could, for example, ensure that the healthy school lunches, devised and championed by the nation's second most optimistic man, Jamie Oliver, which have cut absenteeism through sickness by 14 per cent, and boosted academic performance, don't, as looks likely, become too expensive for poorer parents to afford.

They could make sure that all children in the state school system are encouraged – in a way that I clearly wasn't – to exercise, or play sport. They could limit the advertising of fast food to children. They could ban trans-fats. They could, in other words, try to prevent some of the conditions – obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer – which are threatening to bankrupt the NHS.

Happiness, as the French philosopher and doctor Albert Schweitzer said, is "good health and a bad memory". (According to my Italian Chinese doctor, it's a good liver, which cockneys used to call a "cheerful giver".) David Cameron is lucky. He has the health, and he clearly has the genes. I just hope, in future years, that he's able to forget that we started to measure happiness at a time when, for many people in this country, it was lost.;

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