By deflecting attention from material problems, we are seeking to reform people’s emotional reactions
A recent FT article described vast economic inequalities in the UK, noting Tory electoral success was partially fuelled by promises of spreading wealth to lagging regions. Yet the notion people should want a bigger piece of the prosperity pie is downplayed. The most economically dynamic areas of London, the article notes, are also some of the ‘least happy’. Tera Allas, director of research and economics at McKinsey UK, is quoted saying there is ‘very little correlation’ between economic success and life satisfaction.
The fuzzy idea that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ has been a fixture of British political agenda for nearly two decades. Commentators love pointing out that while GDP has risen steadily, people rate themselves as no happier than they did in the 1940s when surveys began. But why single out material wealth? On this measure, absolutely nothing since the 1940s has made anyone happier. So much for the welfare state, the NHS and women’s equality.
Indeed, measuring progress by happiness is looking increasingly dodgy. So why frame social problems as problems of ‘happiness’ at all? For one thing, inadequate housing, precarious work, inequality and poverty are difficult and persistent issues whose solutions are unlikely to inspire widespread agreement. However, we can all agree that making people happy is a good thing. According to UK ‘happiness tsar’ Richard Layard, social problems are all just ‘versions of unhappiness’.
The burgeoning happiness industry is attempting to get in on the act. We may not know how to end precarious work or solve educational underachievement, but for the low price of £2,500 per head, teachers can be trained in delivering ‘mindfulness’ to pupils. Companies can bring in ‘laughter facilitation’ specialists to ‘enhance [workers’] health and well-being’. Individuals can buy one of hundreds of bestsellers promising the so-called ‘science of happiness’ can transform their lives. ‘Inner peace’ itself has become a multi-billion dollar industry, with mindfulness apps alone generating millions in revenue.
Before all this it was ‘self-esteem’ that was the policy panacea of the day — a ‘social vaccine’ for all manner of ills. Expensive in the short-term, but promising untold benefits in the long-run.
We should be deeply sceptical about the rise of an industry that is looking to turn our attention away from the systemic problems facing society today. Humming on a yoga mat isn’t going to solve wage inequality or the housing crisis and we should not let the happiness lobby distract us from this fact.