Andy Burnham gave his first major speech as Shadow Health secretary today about mental health and well-being. In it and an accompanying interview with the Observer on Sunday he outlined a number of potential dangers of Cameron’s ‘happiness agenda’. Much of what he says I strongly agree with, apart from the suggestion that the well-being approach to policy is owned by the Conservatives. The opposite is in fact the case.
It is true that happiness is all too often believed to depend on wealth and possessions. But while consumer culture (and some right wing think tanks) continue to encourage this belief, evidence from well-being research shows that it is far from the case. Money increases the well-being of those on lower and middle incomes, but those who are already wealthy do not get much happier by earning more money. In fact the opposite can sometimes be the case; too much materialism is sometimes associated with lowering well-being. The policy conclusion is clear: governments should aim for a more equal distribution of income, to ensure that people are earning neither too little nor too much.
It is also true that for those with mental health conditions the social pressure to be happy can be damaging. Indeed aiming to be ‘happy’ in the traditional sense of the word can often be counter-productive. Our research suggests policy aims should be to help people flourish. This includes experiencing the right balance of positive to negative emotions (not feeling happy at all times), but pursuing meaningful activities, having a sense of control over one’s life, and participating in strong social relationships (and we have argued the government’s survey should be measuring this last point). Wearing a constant smile is not the aim.
Burnham suggests resilience should be a focus of mental health policy. He is right to stress its value: it is a crucial personal resource which people need to deal with the circumstances of their lives and we should indeed aim to help people develop it. But resilience complements rather than replaces well-being. Positive emotion creates a virtuous circle, making you more resilient over time. But resilience alone is a defensive goal: the aim is simply to avoid the bad. High well-being, is a positive goal across the society. People want to feel their lives are going well, whatever their income or current circumstances.
There is a bigger point at stake here. Andy Burnham’s comments reflect the views of many in the Labour Party that the well-being agenda is a Conservative one, focused on individualistic outcomes and preferences. But viewed as a whole, Well-being research provides a new justification and new language for goals which Labour already has, as Michael Jacobs has argued convincingly elsewhere. My own research suggests that many of the findings of happiness studies don’t just support our politics, making the case for a fair distribution of income and stronger public services, they provide a robust challenge to the Conservative agenda. It’s time to talk more about happiness, not less.
Charles Seaford is Head of the Centre for Well-being at the new economics foundation (nef)