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Is happiness a useful political aim?

In happiness on July 23, 2009 at 3:45 pm

James Naughtie started an interesting discussion on the Today programme this morning about the advantages of governments aiming to set policy that is in the interests of the well-being and happiness of the general public. I’ve written before about how David Cameron claimed, well before the recession began, that we shouldn’t be looking at GDP, but GWB – general well being. But Naughtie introduced some key thinkiers who are writing about this at the moment.

Richard Leyard (social scientist and economist) – claims that in 20 years we’ll be basing policy on the well-being and happiness of the people.

Michael Sandell (social scientist) – spoke at the Reith Lecture about the common good.

Iain Duncan-Smith (former Tory leader) – convinced that happiness is just as important for the left and the right in politics and that the current banking crisis gives us a chance to ask questions about the way we live our lives. Apparently we are deeply unhappy because our society is broken.

Will Wilkinson (Cato Institute, Washington) – suggests that the idea of contentment has to be reconciled by progress. On one hand we could all be Buddhists and remove all desire and wanting – and therefore remove ourselves from any potential disappointment. But on the other hand, he claims that while the ‘treadmill of striving’ causes a huge amount of anxiety it also drives progress and this should not, and cannot, be stopped. So his solution is to for us to find the balance between ambition and expectation. Simple.

Naughtie is off to Denmark tomorrow – where the people are said to be blissfully happy. I’ll be tuning in to find out their secret.

In the meantime, here’s the link to the Radio 4 website for this morning’s broadcast. And if you like, you can read James Naughtie’s accompanying article online.

With thanks to Nick Hopwood, who actually heard the piece!

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