Great Britain, like many affluent societies, seems to be at a crossroads as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to create a better and fairer society for future generations.
The most pressing issue appears to be recovering from the virus and rebuilding our exhausted public services and depleted public finances. Yet the vulnerability of the UK to COVID-19 – the excessive death toll and deep economic slump – also reveals longstanding structural weaknesses that require fixing if we are to rebuild Britain in a way that protects us from future shocks. Tackling the growth in poor-quality employment, a long-hours work culture, unaffordable housing and underfunded public services is as big a challenge as fighting a deadly virus. The third cloud on the horizon is climate change and the need to create sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles.
How can the study of happiness and wellbeing contribute to the remaking of the UK? Traditionally the reduction of inequalities and poverty were central to a progressive policy agenda. But wellbeing research shows that such an approach, though necessary to improve lives, offers a partial vision of a good society and good life. We need a more ambitious and ‘positive’ analysis of what it means to live well than traditional ‘deficit’-type policies focused on reducing social harms. The climate change crisis also forces us to consider the nature of happiness/wellbeing – the ingredients for a good life/society – if we are to challenge the unsustainable ‘treadmill lives’ and excessive, escapist consumerism that have become common in the UK. Happiness research from sociologists such as Ruut Veenhoven shows that countries with good wellbeing, like the Netherlands, have avoided many of the structural problems we see in the UK providing instead the basic ingredients for a good life that also encourage more sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles.
The interest in happiness has ancient origins dating to the Buddha and Greek philosophers who outlined many of the features of a good life/good society that preoccupy modern researchers. Living well or a happy life was viewed as having subjective dimensions such as the balance of emotions and moods and how we reflect on our lives (Hedonia). Ancient thinkers also documented social factors necessary for happiness such as friends, family, income, health and spirituality or meaning in life (Eudaimonia). Modern researchers have drawn on these writings and devised ways to measure and survey wellbeing to help governments create not just more affluent but also happier societies.
The measurement of happiness/wellbeing and its uses in social policy have, however, been much debated. Surveys and wellbeing policies often focus on individuals when much of life involves social relationships, hence the call for qualitative studies into ‘social happiness’ by researchers such as Neil Thin. Anthropologists and geographers have also argued for more ethnographic research as wellbeing is embedded in community traditions that defy standardised survey techniques. As we age, our experiences shape our identities and ideas about living well, and these processes too are difficult to capture via survey techniques prompting calls for biographical and life history research into happiness/wellbeing. Others have also been sceptical about the happiness/wellbeing agenda, viewing it primarily as a profit-making industry that promotes a damaging culture of narcissism and consumerism that mystifies how power works in capitalist societies.
Taking on board these concerns, a growing number of social scientists using qualitative, biographical and ethnographic techniques have been researching everyday experiences of a good life, the nature of social goods and the features of life that make it worth living. In my research I have been asking people about what happiness means to them and how they try and live well with other people – ‘conviviality’. My respondents recognised the ‘ingredients’ for a good life as popularised by researchers like Richard Layard – marriage, good family life, employment, good health and so on. What life stories show us, however, is how these ingredients interact and are experienced as people age, shaping distinctive journeys through wellbeing. There are patterns to wellbeing as different classed, racialised and gendered opportunities (for employment, housing, education and health care) influence quality of life. There are also surprising variations in happiness as people draw on their strengths and social resources to manage some of the structural barriers to a good life – some poorer people at times had better wellbeing than the more affluent. Visualising this interweaving of social structures and human creativity is a key feature of the sociological study of wellbeing, illustrating the ebb and flow of happiness as we age with those around us. Like classical philosophers before them, my interviewees also recognised the importance of supportive relationships for a good life – friends, workmates, family, partner and neighbours. When asked about happiness, my interviewees recommended a connection to nature (walking in parks, beaches, gardening); rewarding employment; learning new skills and being creative; and developing some principles, values or spirituality to guide them through life.
Small-scale qualitative research can make happiness appear as a personal quest for wellbeing, confirming the fears of some that Britain is becoming a dystopia of atomised, self-absorbed consumers. My interviewees by contrast were mindful of the perils of the quick-fix, self-help industry, often pursuing more traditional collaborative routes to ‘social happiness’. The sociological study of happiness also analyses the institutional, economic and political processes that influence people’s wellbeing. Here, my interviewees offered some remarkable insights into the ways that social structures in Britain hinder their efforts to live well, pointing to an agenda for change that seems all too prescient today.
During the fieldwork for my research, I had begun holidaying in the Netherlands and I was struck by the stark contrast between my British interviewees’ lives and those of the Dutch people I met. Some of the young British mothers described their busy, stressful lives, unaffordable housing, partners at work early in the morning, navigating busy roads for the school run, dash to work, long hours in their job, collecting children from expensive nurseries, preparing dinner, homework with children, falling asleep on the sofa … all repeated the next day. Many spoke of exhaustion and disenchantment with the everyday struggles to live well in the UK.
The young Dutch parents, in contrast, cycled or walked with their children to the local school, and worked flexible, shorter days (30 hours per week compared to 40 in the UK), offering more time for family and leisure. Biking to school and work was a calming start to the day, providing exercise and a sense of being in the world, unlike the frenzied school run and commute in the UK. With fewer cars, Dutch roads are also quieter, safer and less polluted, with people cycling to the vibrant local high street to shop and socialise adding to the wellbeing of the whole neighbourhood.
The legacy of British policy making has been greater inequality, low productivity, unsustainable lifestyles and poor wellbeing. Dutch society offers a vision of how to transform the way we live in the UK. An education system less about choice and competition and more about good local provision. Quality employment that is flexible and centred on the family rather than on corporate profits. An integrated transport system encouraging cycling, walking and public transport rather than a ‘me first’ toxic car culture. Properly funded housing, social security, children’s services, health and social care that offers affordable support for all citizens. And a political and electoral system that includes citizens in local and national decisions that affect their lives.
The Dutch have created their happier, more equal and cohesive society over many decades of inspired, long-term policy making from a collaborative rather than adversarial political system. Its example and further research into wellbeing and a good life can together provide some of the insights to imagine how Britain, a far richer country than the Netherlands, might become a fairer and happier place in the future. All we need now is a political class who would eschew short-term personal and electoral gain for a far more significant and enduring legacy – creating a Britain where life is worth living.
Mark Cieslik is a sociologist in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Researching Happiness: Qualitative, Biographical and Critical Perspectives edited by Mark Cieslikis is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £13.49.
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