Collective purpose and a sense of belonging: the road to happiness?

What do we need to be happy? The satisfaction of our basic needs? Independence? A positive lifestyle? Yes, says Matt Grist, but we must look beyond the individual towards deeper, narrative forms of happiness
Matt Grist
20 May 2011

The American constitution premises its governing laws on the ‘right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ There is often much discussion of the first two of these fundamental rights, but less of the third. Is that all about to change with the Sarkozy government’s ‘Stiglitz Commission’ on measuring social progress in France, and David Cameron’s instruction to the ONS to gather data on people’s wellbeing and happiness? Are we about to see a fundamental shift in the purpose of governance and democracy – an informational exchange between people and state that continually edges our hedonic levels higher?

The socialist government led by Salvador Allende in Chile (1970-73) set up, with the help of British management guru Stafford Beer, a ‘cybernetics system’ (pictured below) that attempted to relay information to government on factory production and ‘social property’, in a continual feedback loop. The idea of the system was to overcome well-documented problems with planned economies – namely, difficulties in the conveyance of accurate information about people’s needs and preferences for goods and services – that in a capitalist economy would travel via markets. In the dying days of the socialist government, members of the regime wondered if they could appropriate the cybernetics system to create a continual feedback loop between state and citizens, with the latter informing the former of what it most needed and wanted government to do.


The socialist regime hoped that this informational utopia could lead to a country of happy citizens, forever rid of any desire to reinstate capitalism. We will never know if this dream would have been realised, because the fascists soon to arrive in the ministry of interior saw the promise of a quite different flow of information.

I am very sceptical that Allende’s cybernetic experiment would have had benign consequences. I have little faith in the state’s ability to use information about the way people feel. I am also sceptical about people’s ability to have any meaningful insight into their own happiness over a short time scale, so that the information the state would receive would be unreliable anyway.

However, I do think that the right to happiness should be as important as life and liberty for anyone serious about conserving and renewing our liberal democracies. Yet serving this right requires focussing on a deeper, narrative form of happiness, rather than subjective and momentary feelings, or techniques for self-help.

In more recent times, Lord Layard, founder of Action for Happiness, has urged that policymakers should look at the empirical evidence and encourage activities proven to make us feel happy, namely: hobbies, building positive relationships with family and friends and sharing and caring with wider society so as to avoid the unhappiness of ‘status anxiety’ that comes with too much competition.

One problem with this approach is the difficulty the state encounters when encouraging any of these activities - a ministry of hobbies anyone? But another problem is the decoupling of the practice of governance from what makes us happy. We are not to be happy as participative citizens in a society-cum-polity. We are only to pursue positive ‘life-styles’ with the government (somehow) implementing technical policies that help us do so. Yet if the state is to make people happy, it must go beyond technocracy and provide citizens with the meaningful narratives they seek. Or to say this differently: the state must appear as something through which people’s meaningful narratives can be realised. 

Liberal democracies are there to protect our freedoms. But they also require governments not only to represent the will of the people, but to counteract various destabilising forces that stem from these freedoms. In order to do this, good governments are not merely technocracies but must provide a narrative that make sense of the cacophony of lifestyle choices, the complexities of a diverse world and (without sounding too grandiloquent) the uncertainties and frailties perennial to human life. This narrative has three main constituents: ensuring basic needs are met amidst the freedoms of capitalism; conserving and extending independence among the citizenry; and ensuring a workable but not overpowering sense of collective purpose. Moreover, these constituents are garnered from the literature on the ‘science of happiness’ as much as political philosophy.

As Amartya Sen has made much of, we are very adaptable creatures, and can be subjectively happy in situations involving high levels of deprivation. Yet the literature on happiness is replete with empirical examples of deprivations to which we cannot adapt: noise, cramped housing, long commutes and of course a lack of basic nutrition and hygiene. It is the job of the state to ensure these basic needs are met so that each may enjoy, as far as is possible, her or his right to happiness. Driving down the North Circular I have often thought it is as much the state’s duty to re-house the people that live in buildings abutting the continuous noise and pollution of the road, as it is to provide clean water. Our society is far on the road to removing damaging impediments to basic material needs (and so the right to happiness), but we are not there yet.

The happiness literature is also replete with examples of how independence – a sense of control over our own lives - makes us happy. Self-employed people tend to be happier than employees; Swiss Cantons with referendums have happier citizens than those without them; people low on what psychologists call ‘internal locus of control’ are unhappier than those with high levels. Such control may be distributed at the group rather than individual level, as it tends to be in more ‘Eastern’ societies. But the basic desire for, and satisfaction with, independence, is the same.

The literature on happiness also shows us that people who feel part of cohesive communities are happier, and, unpalatable to some liberals as it may seem, people who feel a more powerful sense of belonging to a nation are happier and less lonely. People who practice religion are also happier on average and this seems to be largely to do with feeling part of a larger like-minded community with attendant rituals and habits of living.

If politicians are concerned about happiness, they should be concerned about these three sources of wellbeing: basic security from want, independence, and a sense of collective belonging and purpose. Governance provides for these sources through: the rule of law; democratic freedoms; and the provision of welfare, education and healthcare. But it must also provide a sense of collective purpose and belonging – something entirely more nebulous.

In the most reliable happiness data we have, gathered longitudinally over most of the 20th century in America, the happiest generation is by far the one that grew up in the Great Depression, fought and lived through WWII, and brought up families in the 1950s and 1960s. This generation developed the kind of narrative form of happiness that is also the deepest. They overcame material adversity and saw their basic needs satisfied (Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal), they felt in control of their lives (the economic independence of the full employment of the 1950s and 1960s), and they felt part of national and international communities that possessed collective purpose (the overcoming of want at home, the overcoming of fascism abroad). It is worth noting that rational planners, such as those which built Chile’s cybernetics system in 1973, would hardly plan such events to make people happy.

If politicians wanted to make us really happy, it would be this deeper narrative form of happiness on which they would focus, rather than technical policies that support life-style choices, based on statistical feedback loops. Our immediate subjective well-being (in the sense of mental pleasure) is not particularly pertinent to such happiness – for long periods the 1930s’ generation just described had very low-levels of subjective wellbeing. Thus the politics of happiness should not be fought out over ONS survey data in some reprise of Allende’s ‘cybernetics of happiness’. It should rather be fought out over how Cameron and Miliband propose, over the long-run, to conserve and reform (in as far as they can) democratic institutions, the economy, civil society and the welfare state, in line with an ethos of either the ‘Big Society’ or the ‘Good Society’ (or some such overarching vision).

How best to do all this is up for grabs, and will vary from country to country. But the centre-right’s rise across Europe is indicative of social democrats’ inability to come up with a convincing narrative around a collective sense of purpose and belonging. Tony Blair, an astute domestic politician despite other failings, realised that if there was a great truth in conservatism, it was that such a collective sense was all-important. In other words, focussing on happiness leaves everything as it is. What politicians have to do to make us happy is what they have always had to do in a liberal democracy: secure our basic needs, aid our independence and provide a sense of common purpose and shared identity. Statistical surveys on how we are feeling from day to day, year to year, are an irrelevance to such an encompassing narrative.

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