Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Happiness or Affluence? An Advent Question

Madeleine Bunting wrote what I thought was an intriguing column in the Guardian on Monday.

Ms. Bunting looks at the widespread evidence that our present arrangements in society -- broadly called 'consumer capitalism' -- do not make us happy, but tend to make us (or at least many of us) miserable. She then asks the sensible question "if this is so, then why do we focus so much of our collective effort (i.e. in national and local politics) towards prosperity and not towards happiness?"

It might be easy to take the state's hypothetical interest in our happiness -- or let's say "well-being" to be a bit broader -- as a move towards big brother. But (as Ms. Bunting avers) why is public interest in well-being any more like "big brother" than public interest in making money and boosting productivity? It a good question, and I suspect she is on to something.

Of course, the important thing is to ask "what is the nation-state for anyway?" If the "therapeutic state" she proposes ends up being a means of actually just making us better tools for the consumer capitalism she chafes at (a conceivable outcome), then I think it is best left to one side. But if it is a means of becoming more fully human, what I think she envisions, then it is creditable.

It might be worth thinking over as we hurtle through Advent towards Christmas: are the really memorable, really wonderful Christmasses the ones which focused on the material gifts, on getting and having more? Or are they the ones which may or may not have had many gifts (perhaps you can't remember?), but featured good humour and conviviality, family and friends, and hearty worship of the God who gave us Christmas the first time? I know what my answer is; I carry these Christmasses around in my soul, they have become part of who I am.

Here are some excerpts from Ms. Bunting's column to whet your appetite to go and read the whole thing.

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.


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.


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