After two glorious weeks Britain didn’t just surprise the world but surprised itself. The national trait – deep cynicism – had well and truly taken hold in the years, weeks and days leading up until the 30th Olympiad. The press, public and politicians were all, with varying degrees of ferocity, decreeing that we just couldn’t do it; the transport couldn’t cope, the security was compromised, the venues weren’t as spectacular as games prior and, most disappointedly of all, our athletes would let us down. How the naysayers have been quelled. As a nation we have an innate ability to do ourselves down, to question our resolve and forever turn to the comfort of negatively rather than dare to think we may be happy.
The Olympics was a cathartic event for the county. We proved that this small, rainy isle in the Northern Atlantic is still a global player. For two weeks we have, as a nation, had a moment of collective joy. The government clearly hopes that the nation’s happiness will soar. If the government could harness this joy, however fleeting, all its woes would evaporate. Feeling good though isn’t, of course, the same as feeling good about the government. But as we all know, all good things must come to an end. The fact remains that we still face all the same problems we did before the Games – debt, recession, austerity – it’s just that they had been swept under the rug.
When in Opposition David Cameron made concern for quality of life, rather than wealth, a hallmark of his compassionate Conservatism. It was universally derided, but he is in a long line of political figures, from Socrates to Robert Kennedy, and Jeremy Bentham to Tony Blair, who have all grappled with the issue of happiness over economic prosperity.
There is evidence of an increasing interest in the economics of happiness. The OECD has recently commissioned a global survey on happiness and well-being, whilst in the UK the Office of National Statistics last month published their inaugural ‘happiness index’. This momentum has no doubt been hastened by the difficult economic climate and the perception that traditional economics have somehow failed our society. It is not difficult to see that the unremitting focus on growth of output has led to successive governments ignoring the well being of its people.
Happiness has been shown to contribute to greater productivity, better health and a more cohesive society. Current economic theory aims for one objective: growth. But as we enter the fifth year of economic stagnation, economics, which is built on objective measurement, is not making us any happier.
This should inspire Labour to be bold by returning to the themes of general well being. The party did pursue the idea when in office, with none other than Ed Miliband exploring the concept when in the Cabinet Office. The idea was, however, badly expressed, poorly executed and became ensnared in arguments over whether it was a diversion for the forthcoming cuts. But at its heart is a powerful political ideal.
It was a shame that Labour’s response to the recent ‘happiness index’ was desperately disappointing and purely partisan. The results were, said Michael Dugher, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, “a statement of the bleeding obvious”. But the science of happiness poses bigger questions for our politicians than trite press releases.
Happiness may well be the only true lasting legacy from the Olympics. Promises and boasts made over sports participation and economic revival, amongst others, are never likely to come to fruition. If we accept that people no longer feel in control of their lives and that ever-escalating levels of wealth are no longer a given, then happiness may well climb up the political agenda. No government is about to scrap the concept of GDP, but in future governments will be judged on their success in making people happy. Increasingly Labour will want its voters to go the polls with a smile on their face.