When it comes to a government’s priorities, there is no alternative to nurturing citizens’ happiness.
The word is out. GDP growth is not a good indicator of how well a country is performing, and should not be the primary goal of governments. Unlimited growth is not sustainable for planet or populations, and economic thinking is moving toward the idea we should aim for sustainability in our economic models.
But while a well-functioning, sustainable economy is vital to all our futures, it is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Just as money should be valued for what we can do with it, not how much we have.
What end should a country’s economy and government activity serve? Happy City is one of many groups worldwide that believes that the end should be the wellbeing or happiness of society.
The idea that governments should focus on happiness has its critics. There are concerns about how happiness can be measured – and whether such measures are possible or desirable. Is happiness not a fleeting and subjective psychological state? Don’t different people experience different interpretations and levels of happiness?
Even on the broadest construal of ‘happiness’, understood as prosperity or ‘life satisfaction’, people want different things. Attempts to identify ingredients of ‘a good life’, and mould government policy accordingly, start to look totalitarian.
Of course government cannot impose life satisfaction on citizens. But our happiness relies on collaborative efforts as a society, coordinated and managed by government policy. A government’s obligation lies in creating conditions that promote prosperity. And there is good reason to suppose that such conditions exist, are globally applicable, and are discoverable through research.
There is much to be done through public discussion, research and reflection, to work out how to create conditions for prosperity. That doesn’t mean we should put happiness in the ‘too hard’ box. If we give up on the idea that the state’s primary goal should be the happiness of its citizens, we may have to revert to a focus on economic goals – albeit fairer, more sustainable ones.
In a recent article for the Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini suggests we should focus on ‘real wealth’ for citizens, which does not depend on a growth in GDP. Access is key: people do not need to own, but rather access things that enable them to live well. Technological advances and changes in social behaviour (like the new sharing culture) enable us to make more efficient use of the assets that we already have. And focusing on providing ‘real wealth’, i.e., access to the resources people need to live better lives, could help to reduce inequality, without ‘robbing the rich’ through taxation.
As far as it goes, this has much in common with proposals tabled by ‘happiness’ advocates. But it sets the bar far too low for what governments can and should be doing for their citizens.
For example, it’s not clear how a ‘real wealth’ economy would remedy the epidemic of mental ill-health that plagues our society. The 2017 World Happiness Report found that – in western countries, at least – poor mental health is more detrimental to wellbeing than poverty. Over and above a vastly improved provision of therapeutic mental healthcare, there are preventative measures for improving mental health that governments could and should adopt. The WHO recommends establishing institutions that facilitate community participation and social integration – educational programmes and interventions that provide skills for promoting mental wellbeing. It says a lot, however, that the WHO feels the need to appeal to the economic benefits of improving mental health to persuade governments that the cost of taking proposed measures is justified.
Here is the crux. As long as economy – however virtuous or sustainable – is the priority, government interest in its citizens’ prosperity need go no further than ensuring their continued productivity. If medication is a cheaper way of keeping the workforce functioning than investing in education, institutions, public spaces and facilities that promote mental wellbeing, then a government aiming for economic success could simply dose us up.
To demand that government sets the ‘happiness’ of its citizens as its highest priority is to demand that it views citizens as ends in themselves. Governments must not behave like shepherds whose concern for a sheep’s wellbeing extends only to the effect it has on the animal’s meat.
Imogen Smith – Happy City contributor