New research boosts crusade to embed happiness in public policy

By on 15/12/2016
Lord O'Donnell opening the conference at the LSE (SOMCEO/Twitter)

New research suggests that governments could have more success in improving people’s lives if they prioritised improving mental health over traditional top goals such as boosting economic growth.

The research, which was carried out by the London School of Economics, was launched at an international conference on ‘wellbeing’ held in London on 12-13 December. At the event, experts including the former UK civil service chief Gus O’Donnell argued that politicians should put wellbeing objectives at the heart of public policy.

The Origins of Happiness study found that of four interventions that could reduce the number of people in misery – raising incomes; ending unemployment; improving physical health; and abolishing depression and anxiety – the latter would have by far the biggest impact, at the lowest cost.

Lord Richard Layard, who led the LSE report, has been arguing for years that social and psychological factors are more important in deciding the happiness of populations than income levels. He told the BBC that the new findings, which are based on a survey of 200,000 people from Australia, Britain, Germany and the US, give politicians an information base on which to make more appropriate policy and public spending decisions.

He pointed out that four times as many people are made miserable by clinical depression or anxiety disorders than by poverty.

“We think that the government should be appraising policies not in terms of how they affect GDP, but how they affect the happiness of the people,” he said. “This is the only civilised objective.”

Opening the conference, which was jointly organised by the LSE, the OECD and the Paris School of Economics, Lord O’Donnell urged policymakers to focus on wellbeing and its distribution.

He argued that both the result of Britain’s EU referendum and Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election can be explained by an analysis of people’s wellbeing.

“In both cases, and more recently in Italy, people are arguing that the results reflect the rise of populism,” he said. “Yet one common feature is a feeling that the gains from globalisation and technology are not evenly spread. The answer is not less globalisation or technical progress – indeed, we need more to raise productivity – but better ways of spreading the gains.”

According to LSE research, in European elections since 1970, life satisfaction among voters has been the best predictor of whether a government gets re-elected.

During the two-day conference, experts from around the world shared a growing body of evidence on how policy affects wellbeing. This included Australian research into the effect of childhood circumstances on wellbeing in later life, and France’s analysis of the link between early childcare arrangements and psychological development.

Ohood Al Roumi, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for happiness, explained that all government policies in the UAE are now screened to ensure they improve happiness. She launched a national survey of happiness and positivity on 12 December, with the aim of gathering 14,000 responses between now and 15 January.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Giannis Baskozos, General Secretary of Public Health at the Greek Ministry of Health: Exclusive Interview

Report suggests new national authority to improve health care in China

Joint committee calls on Canada’s government to create centre of expertise on mental health

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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