Why Happiness? an interview with co-founder of Action for Happiness

William Davies interviews the co-founder of Action for Happiness to explore the philosophy, politics and economic implications of the happiness agenda
Geoff Mulgan William Davies
7 June 2011

Geoff Mulgan is Chief Executive of NESTAformer Chief Executive of The Young Foundation and a co-founder of Action for Happiness, which was launched in April. William Davies, editor of OurKingdom’s Happiness Debate, met up with him to dig deeper into the philosophy and politics of the happiness agenda.   

WD:             One of the things that many people have argued, myself included, is that a lot of the issues raised by organisations such as Action for Happiness come down to questions of political economy. A lot of unhappiness is caused by bad workplace relations, by unemployment, and consumerism. So one of the things that is frustrating about the agenda is the fact that it stops before it gets to some of these more radical questions.



Geoff Mulgan

 GM:             Much of what shapes happiness has nothing to do with politics and political economy, and much of what’s on the Action for Happiness website is about things you can do in our own life, or in the life of your school, your workplace or your community.   But anyone concerned with these issues sooner or later has to engage with the broader systemic issues: the available evidence tells us that people are more likely to be happy if they have rights and freedoms; if they have prosperity; and if they live in reasonably equal societies.  But we then enter territory where the choices aren’t so clear cut.  A very good and difficult contemporary example is public spending cuts. If you’re a town or a city, and you’re having to cut your spending by 5 or 10%, should you cut 5 or 10% of the jobs or 5 or 10% of the pay  The evidence on happiness suggests that its probably better to cut the pay than the jobs but that debate isn’t happening in the UK, though it has to some extent in Ireland and Greece. Or to take a very different example: should you give a much greater weight to the needs and claims of people suffering from mental illnesses?


WD:             Is there a chance that some core fundaments of how we run our economy, run our businesses, our markets, will potentially come into question?


GM:             Whatever you may think of the details there’s no doubt that a growing body of knowledge about economics transformed how people thought about running businesses, markets and governments.  Many ideas which seemed sensible fifty years ago don’t look so sensible now.  I would expect the same to happen as we learn more about how happiness is shaped: a shift both in common sense and in the specifics of what governments and institutions do. Obvious examples include more questioning of how consumption influences happiness, or debt; more attention to mental health; more attention to the trade-offs between such things as commuting times, happiness and economic prosperity.  But there is much we don’t know. Over the last 2 years as we went through quite a serious recession there was little discernible impact on aggregate happiness. It may be that people spent more time with their families, maybe they ate more with each other, or it may simply be that the great majority enjoyed quite good living standards, since they kept their jobs and also enjoyed very low interest rates. The key point is that we don’t know: but as we do find out more there are bound to be implications for how we think about economic management.


WD:             Another criticism that you could make of Action for Happiness, is that so much of what appears to make us happy is sociological, or at least social – it comes down to relationships, good economic relationships, good private relationships – but a lot of how Action for Happiness has presented itself as has been focused on the individual. There’s a deficit of sociology and of institutions in this agenda.


GM:             Certainly that was an anxiety we had a couple of years ago:  a lot of the happiness agenda can be not just individualistic, but also quite narcissistic, focused only on  the things you could do in your own life to make you happier. And we took great effort in the material on the website and in the overall approach, to emphasise that so much of human happiness is bound up with others, with relationships, giving, connecting, engaging.   That said we’ve deliberately focused Action for Happiness  on what people can do in their own lives, and most people don’t have the freedom to re-shape their institutions, re-shape their political economy, their society. The risk of emphasising institutions and macro structures too much is it then leaves people feeling powerless.   The same is true of equality.  There’s little doubt that levels of equality strongly influence wellbeing. But it’s intellectually lazy – albeit quite fashionable – to claim that unless you can make societies dramatically more equal nothing else is worth doing.   That’s simply not true as well as being a recipe for fatalism and apathy.  What I’m hoping is that people will take action where they can, but that we’ll also encourage a much more serious debate about what can and should be done at the level of institutions and whole societies. The truth is that the ‘small p’ political class has been slow to engage with this. I first made a radio programme on this topic in the mid-1990s: at the time I found it very hard to get any politicians engaged.  Ten years ago I commissioned a report at the Cabinet Office on happiness and public policy, trying to suggest what the policy implications could be.  Again, no minister would go near the topic, and none of the media would take the issue seriously. Since then there has been a bit of progress, and far more interest from economists and statisticians, and vastly more interest from the public.  But no government or major political party has yet made even the first steps towards setting out a programme that would translate what we know about happiness into a programme or a manifesto.  Our political culture, as so often happens, is lagging well behind the cultures of daily life.


WD:             One way of approaching this would be to say – as someone like Amartya Sen might do – that happiness in a richer eudaimonic sense necessarily involves forms of political participation, forms of collective sovereignty, and that these possess intrinsic value, independently of their psychological, neurological or hedonic effects. How do you respond to that sort of claim?


GM:             Well many subscribe to the view that a fully rounded human being should be fully engaged in the world around them. The question is: how much, through what forms? The data on wellbeing does show reasonable correlations between democracy and levels of wellbeing. The work of people like Bruno Frey has shown that the more people can exercise power the happier they tend to be. But it clearly can’t be the case that there’s a straightforward causal link between any kind of collective sovereignty or empowerment and wellbeing, because there are bound to be limits. There are bound to be points at which you’re spending so much time exercising power that it’s cutting into other things like family and so on. I think that Amartya Sen’s work is fascinating at a rather abstract level, and it rightly points towards the direction of travel that much of the world needs to take. But his work doesn’t address the interesting boundary points, or how we would ask more granular questions. So in the workplace, some kinds of empowerment clearly affect wellbeing, and productivity, but equally a workplace where everyone is constantly in a meeting making decisions could be pretty miserable.


WD:             Philosophically what I think you’ve just done there is to say that the Aristotelian aspects of happiness have to be answerable to the Benthamite apects. Hence, unless the Aristotelians can demonstrate certain effects, with evidence, that their agenda remains incomplete.


GM:             I’m not a utilitarian, I never have been. I’m not saying that whichever outcome scores highest on the happiness index is therefore the best answer. But anyone who takes eudaimonics seriously must surely be concerned to know what kinds of society or institution are most likely to promote flourishing and which ones aren’t.   This isn’t a debate polaraised between utilitarians concerned with facts and evidence, and Aristotelians concerned only with deductive logic.   My view is that happiness in its many senses matters (and I use it as shorthand for the very different issues of wellbeing, fulfilment and meaning) but that it’s not the only legitimate goal for a society or an individual.  You may just as much value virtue, or the glory of  nature, or the glory of god, or the survival of Gaia, and there will almost certainly be trade-offs between the pursuit of these goals and the pursuit of either hedonic or eudaimonic wellbeing.   My hope is that we learn more about what these are.


WD:             One way in which the debate goes wrong is that some of the economists involved are rather bad philosophers. And they jump quite rapidly between talking about pleasure or something going on at a neurological level, to talking about ethics, and something that is much more social, political, teleological. It’s going to turn a few people off, to suggest that statistical techniques that have been around for less than 200 years are going to answer ethical questions that have been around since the dawn of humanity.


GM:             I welcome the fact that economists are now interested in human experience rather than only in money and things.   But I think they’re on weak ground in claiming that there is a single thing called ‘utility’ which you can measure.   Measurements can help us understand the many dimensions of human thriving, and the more we know the clearer it is that these are complex. The same is true of health: measures help us to understand it even though it’s not a single thing, but instead is personal and holistic.   An example of the complexity is the interesting empirical evidence showing that metrics of happiness and metrics of unhappiness do not correlate inversely.   During the recession – to return to my earlier point – measures of happiness remained quite stable. But measures of unhappiness markedly worsened. That is certainly not what Bentham or the founders of neo-classical economics would have expected.  But the philosophers shouldn’t be too complacent in scoring points off the economists.   The remarkable new findings coming from psychology, neuroscience and statistical analysis should be influencing any philosopher who claims an interest in human experience or ethics.  I see figures like Thomas Metzinger as particularly fascinating – serious philosophers not feeling threatened by scientific analysis and data, but seeing that philosophy should engage with this, often critically to say ‘your concepts are flawed and your thinking is muddled’, but equally recognising that any philosophy about human beings which ignores new knowledge about human beings is bound to be  inadequate.


WD:             The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has said that he would rather the agenda was framed in terms of the alleviation of unhappiness, rather than the promotion of happiness, which is partly a vocational difference between psychologists and economists. Economists like to optimise whereas psychologists like to treat and normalise. But positive psychology meshes with neo-classical economics on this point: there’s a common tendency towards optimisation. Doesn’t this jar with a traditional assumption, that professionals help when people need help, but don’t carry on fixing us beyond our needs?


GM:             As a teenager I trained for a brief period as a Buddhist monk and learned a worldview that is concerned with the reduction or elimination of suffering.  Ever since then I’ve always thought that this should be the starting point of any political project: indeed it’s a more solid foundation than the pursuit of justice, equality or rights, and becomes  a good test of whether any particular proposal for justice, equality or rights coheres.   That’s one of the reasons I first became interested in the politics of happiness: much of what we are discussing in practice is what can be done to reduce unnecessary suffering.  Some suffering is unavoidable, it’s just part of life, and grief and sorrow cannot and should not be eliminated. But we live in societies with an awful lot of avoidable suffering, whether caused by mental illness, powerlessness, by economies that treat people as having no value, or by fear of other people.


That said, we made a very conscious choice with Action for Happiness not to focus only on suffering. One reason is that there are plenty of people in our society who, with relatively small changes to their lives, could have greater wellbeing.  If you imagine people on a scale, with +5 being the happiest and –5 being the most miserable, why should we not be supplying relatively easy, low cost tools for people to move up a notch, and by doing so make their friends and families happier?   People’s wellbeing is also interdependent, so it makes sense to focus on influencing whole populations, rather than narrowly defined groups. And a further point is that by doing things in that way, we de-stigmatise this agenda. One of the advances of recent years is that it is now much more acceptable to discuss these issues than it was.  Even a decade ago many politicians and intellectuals who would be absolutely at home talking about war, debt, exports or income distributions felt almost physically uncomfortable, squeamish, talking about these issues.  That’s rather less the case now.


WD:             When you say squeamish are you talking about when it becomes about mental health? After all, there are still taboos about mental health and depression.


GM:             That’s true but Im also making a wider point.  20th century culture was at home talking about war, the economy, GDP and so on, but very uncomfortable talking about feelings, emotions, the softer as opposed to harder aspects of life. We perhaps saw those as not appropriate for political or public discourse – they were private matters -  and there are still some quasi-taboos about addressing some of those things openly. We’re still not as comfortable talking about inequality of misery, as we are talking about inequality of income.  We’re still more comfortable talking about, say, pensions than we are about loneliness in old age.


WD:             One response to that would be that capitalism has forced this feminisation upon us via the rise of emotional labour and the service economy. I think it’s interesting that one area where the government does seem to have picked up this agenda has been in the Department of Work and Pensions where it features heavily as a productivity and HR agenda. Marxist theorists of immaterial labour, such as Hardt and Negri, would say that capitalism is producing these forms of ‘psychological externalities’, and we therefore have a model of capitalism that has become self-destructive. The latest contradiction of capitalism is that we work and consume in ways that prevent us from being as productive as we might be. The Black Review of workplace wellbeing showed that the total cost to the UK economy of worklace absence caused by mental and behavioural problems is equivalent to a third of the entire cost of the NHS – about £40bn a year.


GM:             There are lots of different things here which often get conflated. One question is what are the psychological effects of different levels of technological and economic development whether under capitalism, under socialism, or any other system. If for example most labour is knowledge-based, does that have a different effect on wellbeing from an economy based in factories and so on?. There’s a second set of issues about capitalism’s tendency to disempower workers in the workplace, or to create unnecessary needs amongst consumers and so on.


On both questions I’m always keen to find evidence and analysis rather than relying solely on theory, or to put it more harshly guesswork (Hardt and Negri seem to have an almost total aversion to facts, or testable hypotheses, whereas Marx of course always liked to move between theory and fact, which is one of many reasons why his thinking was so much more powerful).  There’s surprisingly little evidence to justify the claim, although it’s a very widely held one, that capitalism over time is directly making people miserable. To the extent that you can assess it empirically, this claim is almost certainly wrong, at an aggregate level.  There are now innumerable surveys and datasets which make it possible to compare different countries and time periods and these show that more capitalistic societies are on average happier than less capitalistic ones, just as more prosperous societies are on average happier than less prosperous ones.  And yet clearly there are all sorts of psychological pathologies that follow from certain kinds of capitalistic forms of work organisation, and certain kinds of consumer organisation.   It appears for example that unhappy people can become more materialistic in their orientation which can in turn make them less happy.  Being exposed to lots of advertisements showing rich and beautiful people can, not surprisingly, make you feel poor and ugly.


But what we need is much more rigorous thinking on the links between aggregate phenomena, middle level phenomena and individual lives.  Adam Smith wrote that consumption is an end, but we should really see it as a means and not an end, and understand more about why some sorts of consumption may make us happier while others do not. One of the many new areas of enquiry that could grow off the back of this agenda is better analysis of what might be called the productivity of consumption. Clearly someone who owns ten mansions, 300 shoes and five Aston Martins has become an incredibly inefficient consumer by any objective measure, because the marginal wellbeing value of their last Aston Martin or mansion has become close to zero. It may even have become negative because they’re so nervous about losing them, whereas a small increment of income for someone on a very low wage may have a big effect on their wellbeing. But we could also start asking economic questions that we’ve never previously asked at all about the relative impact of different consumption choices, of everything from clothing to travel to alcohol on people’s wellbeing, rather than just assume that people are competent maximisers.


WD:             Isn’t this is also about the rise of a therapeutic culture since the 1960s? Someone like Slavoj Zizek would say that we now live in a society where enjoyment is more of an obligation than obedience, and that this produces even greater strains upon the self than the sort of society analysed by Freud, in which the self was constrained in various ways. So post-1960s culture is one in which individuals ask themselves questions which might exacerbate their problems: am I happy, am I fulfilled? The more these questions flood our society and our public life, the further away the answers come. Do you think there’s a risk of a snowballing effect here, where introducing and mainstreaming therapeutic culture, via Action for Happiness and so on, actually produces as many problems as it alleviates?


GM:             Zizek is another writer who shows no interest in facts – and I’m sceptical of any claim that there are more strains on the self now than in some past period.  That said its one the most longstanding findings about happiness that the best route to it is often not to pursue it directly, but to set about doing other things. Happiness is often a by-product, and can be elusive when faced too directly too much of the time. And undoubtedly a highly information-rich, reflexive society risks making people much more aware of the things they’re missing out on, and too neurotic about their own wellbeing.   I’d be as worried about people being too obsessed with happiness as I would be about people being too obsessed with money or too obsessed with intellectual fads.  And I could certainly imagine a world where there was such an obligation to be happy that people who were unhappy felt like failures.  However I don’t think we’re anywhere near that yet. And the risk of this happening is dramatically lower than the risk of many people remaining miserable and unhappy, and suffering wholly unnecessarily.  So my question to Zizek is –  what reasons do you have for thinking that the risks of an obligation to be happy outweigh the risks of many experiencing unnecessary suffering?


WD:             What would be a realistic ambition for you and your colleagues in Action for Happiness, in 15 years, in terms of its impact on policy?


GM:             We haven’t set ourselves a target of moving the UK’s happiness level up from 7.2 to 7.3 or anything, although that would be a nice outcome.  What we want is a cultural shift towards a society which in 10 or 15 years time is absolutely at home having these kinds of conversations and where it is as natural to talk about what’s going on with happiness – with who is thriving and who is not - as it is natural to discuss what’s going on with the economy, and who’s prospering and who is not.  Hopefully that would be a society where it would be as natural to ask: what can a government do to create the conditions of happiness as it is to ask what can a government do to create the conditions of economic growth or innovation and so on.  We’ll have succeeded when this seems absolutely obvious, a common sense, no more no less. This doesn’t mean that maximising happiness is the only goal for society – there are lots of other goals, many of which will be in tension with it. But we see it as a natural evolution of democracy, that the purpose of society shouldn’t be to become the most militarily powerful, as it was in the 19th century; or to amass the most wealth, as it was in the 20th century; but that the best primary goal for any society and its state, services and citizens today is to grow happiness.  And my hunch is that the more seriously we take this idea the more we will discover the radicalism of its implications.  


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