Monday, December 05, 2005

A Brilliant Piece

Here's a brilliant piece from today's Guardian by the consistently excellent Madeline Bunting. A couple of years ago my wife Zsuzsanna wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled 'Goulash and Solidarity' on how much better things were for the majority of people under 'goulash communism' than they are under capitalism.
We're not talking here only about real wages and living standards- but about the feeling of solidarity and warmth between fellow human beings. In the absence of religion or other value systems, capitalism destroys solidarity as sure as night follows day. The aim of the game is to turn us into selfish, acquisitive consumers- spending our whole lives trying to keep up with the Jones. But there is another way. It's called being human.

Consumer capitalism is making us ill - we need a therapy state Britain is becoming unhappier as depression, crime and alcoholism grow.
Government can and should intervene
Madeleine Bunting Monday December 5, 2005 The Guardian
Having done so much damage to the self-image of Slough in The Office, the BBC had to make amends. So they made a series about trying to make Slough happy. Tomorrow, in the final episode, we get to hear if they succeeded. It has been a cheerful but loopy series that left happiness to be defined by a collection of endearing "experts" indulging their own idiosyncrasies, from dancing in woodland to launching a choir. They didn't achieve their aim (although it didn't stop them from claiming they had) but along the way, they made a fair bid at introducing a mainstream audience to a fascinating emerging territory of public debate.
The funny thing was that, while the series may not have been gripping TV, it ended up making you feel, well, rather happy. It's heart-warming to see a woman who has always hated her voice singing lustily on stage, and to see the 50 volunteers for the project making new friendships and enjoying themselves. It generated the kind of feelgood factor you get from the school summer fete: not a thrill, but a gentle glow.
The hunt for happiness is an ancient human preoccupation, so there is nothing new in all this, but it is being reframed in order to challenge our prevailing political assumptions. The argument starts from the fact that Britain may have got very much richer in the past 40 years but it has not got happier. In fact, by measures such as depression, crime, obesity and alcoholism, we have got very much unhappier. So isn't the preoccupation with rising GDP misplaced? Shouldn't politics be focused around more than just economic growth? Shouldn't politics be as concerned with measures of human happiness?
Second, research has established more clearly than ever what the most likely predictors of happiness are, and there are now proven methods to treat unhappiness - particularly cognitive behavioural therapy which aims to break cycles of negative thinking. Happiness is no longer an elusive fuzzy feeling; a body of data gives us the tools to analyse what it is and what causes it. Happiness has gone respectable, and it's been tagged to intellectual disciplines - the science of happiness, happiness economics - so it will be taken more seriously.
But neuroscientists and psychologists apart, there is an even more pressing reason to take happiness seriously and this is what is grabbing the attention of Whitehall - unhappiness is an expensive business. Most striking is the huge chunk of claimants who are on incapacity benefit because of mental health problems: a whopping 900,000 or 38% of the 2 million total. Mental ill-health is the biggest single cause of incapacity and costs the country an estimated £9bn in lost productivity and benefits. The weight on the NHS is enormous: GPs spend a third of their time on mental health and the prescription cost of drugs is rising.
Plus, there is a whole range of political issues which have roots in mental ill-health, from obesity and alcoholism, to parenting, the respect agenda and antisocial behaviour among children and young people. The combination of incapacity-benefit reform and this "behaviour" politics is giving unprecedented impetus to mental health, the long-time Cinderella of the NHS.
The most dramatic development of the "therapy state" will come with the announcement, expected later this week, of a big increase in the availability of cognitive behavioural therapy on the NHS. But there has been a rash of smaller initiatives as government departments grapple with how to integrate this new dimension into policy. The Department for Education and Skills launched new guidelines earlier this year on the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is now proposing to introduce indices of welfare and life satisfaction and how they relate to sustainability.
Most of it is piecemeal and still relatively small-scale, but the old liberal concept that the emotional life of citizens is no business of the state is crumbling. It raises the prospect of a future politics where emotional wellbeing could be as important a remit of state public health policy as our physical wellbeing. In 10 years' time, alongside "five fruit and veg a day", our kids could be chanting comparable mantras for daily emotional wellbeing: do some exercise, do someone a good turn, count your blessings, laugh, savour beauty.
We might also be discussing how to regulate emotional pollution in much the way we now discuss environmental pollution. Top of the list would be advertising, which is bad for our emotional health. It induces dissatisfaction with its invidious comparisons with an affluent elite. Television is not much better for us with its disproportionate volume of violence and fraught relationships. It makes people unhappy, less creative and cuts them off from emotionally healthy activities such as sport or seeing friends. Meanwhile, there would be a strong rationale to increase subsidies for festivals, parks, theatres, community groups, amateur dramatics, choirs, sports clubs and lots of other lovely things.
To some, these kinds of interventions represent a nightmare scenario of a nanny state, an unacceptable interference in personal freedom. If people want to pursue their own unhappiness, then the state has no right to stop them. Critics conjure up the nightmare prospect of Brave New World and its soma-imbibing placid citizens.
But the problem is, as Richard Layard argues in his book Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, that the decline of both religious belief (which is a strong predictor of happiness) and the social solidarity movements of the 20th century has left a vacuum of understanding about what constitutes a good life and how to be happy.
The church has lost sway, and the state has retreated behind the single rationale of promoting economic competitiveness with its overtones of Darwinian selection (a major source of unhappiness in itself with its vision of life as a competitive struggle). That leaves the market a free rein to describe happiness - the new car, new sofa, new holiday - and to manipulate our insecurities around status.
Leave things as they are and the state will increasingly have to pick up the bill for how consumer capitalism effectively produces emotional ill-health - depression, stress, anxiety. Leave things as they are and the state is part of the problem, promoting a set of market values that produce emotional pollution. Take education for example, where the needs of the labour market have been the driving influence for more than a generation. Has the regime of testing, league tables and competitiveness had a cost in emotional health? Layard cites an international study of schoolchildren in which the 11-15 age group were asked whether they agreed that "most students in my class are kind and helpful". England came last of eight developed countries, below Russia.
The huge ambition of the small but growing happiness lobby is that the state resumes a role in promoting the good life, not just to chivvy us along in the global rat race, anxious and insecure.

No comments: