Monday, 1 March 2010

We were poor.....but happy

It was interesting to learn from the front page of today's Western Mail that the Welsh Assembly Government is considering measuring the happiness of the nation.

The idea of general well-being rather than pure economic growth as a policy goal has become increasingly fashionable in recent years.

This is partly because although western societies are materially far richer than we were 50 years ago, we are no happier. Indeed, stress and mental illness have often increased.

David Cameron was very keen on the idea, until the global economic crisis intervened to suggest even in the West we no longer live in a post-material world. The Welsh Conservatives have yet to claim credit for converting the Labour/Plaid Assembly Government into Cameroons.

GWB rather than GDP or GVA has obvious attractions to Welsh politicians, whose stated aims to narrow the economic gap with England have, to put it politely, yet to deliver.

Some of the most fascinating political books I've read during the last year have been written on this very subject. I'd recommend (Lord) Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Affluenza by Oliver James.

Layard argues that happiness should be a central policy goal and presents evidence that less unequal societies are not just fairer but happier. He calls for redistribution from rich to poor through higher taxes - "We can now show scientifically that an extra pound is worth more in happiness to a poor person than to someone who is richer."

Oliver James attributes the "affluenza" virus - effectively status anxiety - to an obsession with wealth that has left more of us unhappy. He suggests new policy goals, including one or two radical policies designed to get politicians thinking differently.

One of his ideas is that would-be MPs should spend some time looking after children aged under three before going into Parliament.

I'd be very happy to volunteer my two-year-old son for this novel experiment, although I'd probably prime him with a couple of verbal hand grenades to keep the politicians on their toes.

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