The happiness factor

Richard Reeves is a business analyst and co-founder of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy. One of his biggest-selling ideas is happiness—or, as some would put it, ‘joyology’‘. Reeves was a member of the team that recently set itself the heroic task of bringing happiness to the English town of Slough, as a BBC TV experiment. Whether or not he and his colleagues raised the town from the depths of its traditional despondency with their recipes (less TV, more exercise, cycle lanes) is debatable. But very watchable.

Is there, I ask him, a ‘science’’ of happiness? ‘The answer,’’ Reeves believes, ‘is yes—with some qualifications. There’s what I would call a young science of happiness. I think we’re still some way from being able to say with certainty what the actual ingredients are.

‘And, in my view, we’ll never get a science of happiness in the same way as, for example, we have a science of medicine. But I do believe that psychologists and social scientists and—funnily enough—economists, like myself, are working usefully on what they call ‘hedonics’.’‘

But how do you measure happiness? ‘Social scientists’ investigation of happiness is based on a very simple subjective questionnaire. You just ask people to assess how happy or how satisfied they are with their lives as a whole.

‘People, as it turns out, are pretty good measurers of their own happiness. If you run that one question repeatedly across big samples of population in different countries and at different times, you get good, consistent, robust data that you can then do interesting things with.

‘You can go on to ask, ‘Well, what are the characteristics of individuals, or even societies, that correlate with higher levels of life satisfaction or happiness?’ I think the data is now strong enough to be taken seriously by policymakers. But what I definitely don’t think is that it’s the new trump card in policymaking.

‘It would be a huge mistake to disinter [utilitarian philosopher] Jeremy Bentham and say he was right all along and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is suddenly the principal new policy goal.’‘

Is happiness, then, something that society should be aiming at as an end in itself?

‘I think it is. Happiness is one of the things that we really should be directing ourselves to, as a society. There’s a lovely quote from John Maynard Keynes, writing in the 1930s about ‘the economic prospects for our grandchildren’. Keynes predicted that ‘there will come a time when we’ve solved the economic problems—at which point we shall be faced with the permanent problem of mankind: how to live wisely, agreeably and well. It will be those societies that cultivate the arts of life who will best be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.’

‘In my view, Keynes was entirely right in his prediction. And it’s fascinating that an economist should concede that economics is only useful until it reaches its own point of diminishing returns. We are at that point now. So the Keynesian question is, ‘Are we enjoying the fruits of our abundance?’, ‘Are we living wisely, agreeably, and well?’ My answer would be, ‘Not as much as we could do’.’‘

And why not?

‘Largely because our benchmarks of success are stuck in the old models, which are principally based on gross domestic product, industrial growth, productivity, and income. All these continue to grow but without giving any clear hedonic benefit. Let’s take an example, education—an area of policy that I think is going in entirely the wrong way. If you look at education policy from the point of view of happiness, or life satisfaction, what you would realise is, past a certain point, income growth is not terribly important.

‘What we should be teaching kids are the arts of life: how to form good, sustainable relationships; how to find interests outside work; how to find work that’s not merely financially rewarding but which also meets their human needs. What we’re doing instead is vocationalising education, making it a training camp for the labour market.’‘

You don’t go along with the theory that the better off you are, the happier you are?

‘No. I do, however, go along with John Stuart Mill, who said that happiness is something that comes to you ‘by the way in the pursuit of some other worthy end’. He also said something that I very much like: that happiness is a thing you must approach from the side, ‘like a crab’.’‘

So is the underlying message that if you pursue happiness directly, you won’t find it?

‘I think that’s probably right. But I also think that it comes as the result of what I’d call good purposes in life. The problem with economic striving is that it’s really not hedonically efficient. That’s not to say that more money won’t make you happier. It will. But, above a certain necessary level, it will take an awful lot of money to make you only a little bit happier. It’s a very inefficient way of getting more happiness.’‘

To go back to policy, can a government—in however a crab-like way—have happiness goals or targets?

‘I do think we should measure happiness. I think it should be taken on by the newly independent Office for National Statistics.’‘

In your view would it have any electoral appeal for a party to say that it was its mission to raise the happiness index in the population?

‘Actually, people seem quite prepared to talk about what they call the ‘feel-good factor’. That’s become part of the current political lexicon. And what’s that if not happiness by another name? I don’t think it would make electoral sense for [the leaders of the main political parties] to say, ‘We’re the happiness party, and we’re going to make you happy’. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that politicians should take seriously people’s sense of their own wellbeing, and of the wellbeing of society generally, and see that as an important policy goal. It should not be something that is giggled out of court.’’—



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