Not-so-happy days ahead

January 13, 2011

The government is apparently keen to include psychology in developing and administering policy. It will be interesting to see how the government fares on its political interpretation of "happiness". There is much extant research on measures of "well-being" (for example, that of Peter Warr) and, unsurprisingly, one measure of "happiness" doesn't do the trick. Measures of "joy", "contentment" and "meaning or purpose in life" address different aspects of happiness.

So considering the economy, what has the government done thus far that might result in people experiencing joy, contentment or meaningful purpose? Perhaps the government is hoping that the forthcoming royal wedding will give some people joy where there is a lack of any uplifting economic news, although it has to be acknowledged that the Stock Exchange recently touched 6,000 points and the bankers are hopeful that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will soft-pedal in respect of their forthcoming £7 billion bonuses. So perhaps the well-off have something to cheer about.

"Contentment" suggests a degree of unquestioning docility, but people can be content with their lot. The student protests against a hike in tuition fees, the rise in unemployment of young people and the negligible rise in jobs are prima facie evidence that an important segment of the population is far from content. If we add to this secondary and tertiary educationalists and public sector workers more broadly, we have a swathe of people who are unlikely to be content.

Finally, how meaningful is life; what detracts from a fulfilled and meaningful life? We already know that being without money, work or other meaningful activity makes people unhappy. With a "jobless" recovery ahead, what chance do such people have? Well there is always the "Big Society" to fall back on: give of yourself charitably to others in order to experience meaning in life.

So can we now expect a happy 2011? In the prime minister's own words, "the heavy lifting" of the cuts is still to come. There will be no more "shopping therapy" and more expensive travel or the option to stay at home; and there will be low prospects for young people. Given that last year's cuts by the chancellor have resulted in precisely no reduction in the deficit, we might be justified in wondering whether his policies really are working.

Elizabeth Chell, Kingston University.

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