At the RSA we speak about 'policy' quite a lot, and one of the ways we judge our success is the extent to which we think we might be influencing it. Policy matters because of scale. You can write insightful reports until the bulls come home, engage with the public until they are fed up with you, and convince yourself that your innovative work may transform the lives of institutions or individuals, but unless policy makers take note of what you are doing, the reach of your impact will probably be limited.
For instance, we would all like to think that we have a part to play in making people happier. As an individual it is better if you smile, give compliments, be warm and friendly, and gift your time and services, and perhaps you will thereby add some cheer to the world. But those effects will fade, and unless you are blessed with an unusually cheerful disposition, it's unlikely you'll be able to keep it up. It's not that what you do doesn't matter, but if it's only you who is doing it, you are unlikely to change the world.
It's not that what you do doesn't matter, but if it's only you who is doing it, you are unlikely to change the world.
Some say that's small minded, and that social diffusion means that we influence each other at three degrees i.e. how we behave influences our friend's, friend's friend. Some say that we therefore never know where our influence ends. That sounds true to me, but in the sense that we really don't know where our influence ends, not that our influence is necessarily boundless and beneficent. It's not just that the evidence on the three degree claim is contentious, but as any social network researcher will tell you, it's extremely hard to track with conviction. There are just too many 'confounding variables', God bless them.
I still think we should be as positive as we can without being dishonest to ourselves or others, but without policy, some argue, attempts to make the world happier feel somewhat futile.
Or maybe this is completely wrong-headed, and policy is not the solution at all. Perhaps there is just no solution at that sort of scale. When it comes to improving wellbeing, perhaps policy levers and national measurements are the wrong tools for the right job.
When it comes to improving wellbeing, perhaps policy levers and national measurements are the wrong tools for the right job.
Jules Evans continues his stellar service to the debate on the politics of wellbeing with two recent posts on this matter. The first is that if you begin a series of wellbeing questions by asking about the Government, people are not happy- the very thought of politicians gives them a jaundiced view of their own wellbeing. Secondly, there is virtually no evidence between government policy and subjective wellbeing. It's not just the well trodden-turf called the easterlin paradox but more tangible paradoxes, like the fact that China has had about 10% growth every year for the last decades, but happiness levels are flat. I like the way Jules highlights the importance of this point in a blog called: Why are national happiness levels always so flat?
"What do happiness economists expect? Do they think that, if governments pursue the right policies, the public will go from a seven, to an eight, until eventually, after say 30 years, we will all be shouting 'Ten!' before ascending in rapture unto heaven? Of course, given such a bounded numerical scale, people are going to say 'about a seven', even if their lives have actually got better or worse over time. We forget the bad times, and we also forget the good times. Our daily well-being is probably protected by our forgetfulness and our ability to adapt."
Are we always going to be 'oh about seven'? What is going here? I think it's great that Governments are thinking and talking about wellbeing, but is it conceivable that there is little they can do to influence it?