When social historians they look back on the debates that emerged in the first years of the 21st century they are likely to notice a pronounced trend. This is the emergence of a field that might be labelled psycho-social policy. There are four distinct but overlapping sets of ideas:
First, that greater social justice lies not only in the legal, social or economic rights afforded to citizens but in ideas of capability and resilience, which are to some degree subjective.
Second, that progress as defined by economic growth and rising absolute levels of affluence across the income range has become uncoupled from aggregate levels of happiness or well-being across society
Third, that the success of policy interventions both in satisfying the public and achieving social outcomes involves not simply delivering service outputs but in affecting the values and behaviours of clients and citizens.
Fourth, that the crucial determinant of an individual’s life chances lie not only in their socio-economic circumstances but in psychological traits which emerge from some combination of genetic, parenting and cultural influences.
Overall, I welcome these new ways of thinking about progress and fairness. They open up debates about the good life and the good society which are more interesting and engaging than the predominant recent form of electoral politics (a combination of tactical communication and technocratic policy making). Having said which, the objections to this turn in public discourse are not to be lightly dismissed.
They include questions about not just the objective measurability, but the conceptual clarity, of ideas like resilience, well-being and happiness. Wouldn’t constant happiness simply be a state of bovine complacency? What are we to make of a country such as the USA which seems to combine dynamism with poor levels of aggregate well-being? Isn’t the focus on individual characteristics simply a form of victim-blaming when we know that certain objective circumstances such as being unemployed or chronically unwell are much more simply and directly associated with other poor outcomes? And, anyway, while issues such as economic redistribution or the provision of public services may be an appropriate domain for state action do we really want politicians imposing their account of happiness or well-bring on us?
These are difficult and complex issues. As Catherine Bennett’s piece in last week’s Observer shows, the arguments of those who emphasise psychological well-being are easy to caricature. I have recently been involved in an ESRC project largely based on critiquing what the research director call ‘the therapeutic state’.
The goal must be to bring an awareness of the psychological and subjective components of reality more consistently into political and policy debate while avoiding the obvious traps. It means that the advocates of this approach have to be rigorous in their own thinking and alert to the dangers of throwing ideas like well-being and character into debate half formed and poorly defined. Those who seek a more humanistic account of social progress need to be as willing to challenge their allies as their opponents.
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?