Why are so many people unhappy?

Speech given at the launch of Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century, Brighton Party Conference, 2007

I started out on my chapter just thinking about how often friends or colleagues bound up to me and say, “Hey Lynne, I feel fabulously happy and I there’s nothing I would want different.”

Duh! Never! We appear to wander round in mild to severe discontent with our lot. It’s not actually the ‘fabulously happy’ answer that I really hope for – but I do wonder what it is that makes us feel such dissatisfaction.

It comes down to status – and how we value and are valued in today’s society. And my chapter looks at the way I think we are floundering around somewhat, because the historic pillars of behaviour have crumbled and yet we have not put anything solid and acceptable and universally accorded in their place.

And the problem for us oh so very humans, is that while we all crave status – status is much about the external. So we end up trying to define ourselves in terms of our purchasing power, position in society, our job, where we live, or indeed the possession of the perfect pout – but this all leaves a certain hollowness behind, a failure to really address our human need..

It has simply created internal deserts which are hungering for something more substantial, more rewarding than material goods, an 18-hour day, or being a size double zero!

And, whilst it is undoubtedly more comfortable to be rich and miserable, too many of us – across all parts of society, of all different bank account balances are, in reality, miserable.

To comfort us in our misery, or to insulate ourselves against the reality of the deficiencies in ourselves, our work, our lives, or our families, we seem to like numbing ourselves to reality by passing time anaesthetising ourselves with the quick-fix, feel-good-for-a-moment relief of retail therapy, junk TV, junk food (hello obesity), or excess alcohol (hello binge drinking).

The real unobtainables of the 21st century are not material goods – but values, emotions and feelings. I know – it’s a bit touchy, feely … but it one of the reasons why some politicians – Bill Clinton most famously – do so touch something deep in voters’ minds – with an understanding of pain and hurt.

Now, as this isn’t a philosophical treatise on the decline of man, the question is what is it that can be done, both by the state and by individuals, to improve our lot?

Of course there is an underlying rationale for some particular instances of malaise and misery – for example when divorce, unemployment, bereavement or ill-health come our way – but current levels of unhappiness seem excessive when set against the low levels of unemployment, a relatively decent health service and income which is not generally the grinding poverty of yesteryear.

So whilst public policy on health, crime, employment, housing, education, the environment we live in and so on all colour the backdrop against which we live our lives there is more to the problem than this.

We have seen very clearly, under a Labour, authoritarian and centralising government, how very, very little ever-more stringent laws, surveillance, rules, regulations, targets and punishments are achieving in terms of changing behaviour.

So how do we rebalance the relationship between status and friendship and the common good – indeed, is possible at all?

And what role, if any, does government have in all of this? This is tricky territory to tread in; one false slip of the sentence and you open yourself up to pastiche for wanting a Ministry of Fun, or state-regulated force-fed humour courses with every meal.

The only real solution is to create an environment where behaviour matters because of the social order, not because of a purely legalistic one.

So – I have a look in my chapter at what used to provide our social order – how we used to behave well because the Church, parents, teachers, the police and the government said we should. This is no longer very much the case.

The remedies we appear to have put in place to keep us on the straight and narrow of behaviour now are legal boundaries rather than the old social ones – and they will not and cannot work in the longer term.

Some of the underlying changes do, of course, have positive outcomes as well as negative ones. People are less deferential and more free to do what they want – which is a liberal outcome. The trick is to try and work out a way of developing a new framework, a new social.

So – what’s to do?

Perhaps first and foremost, we need to re-establish trust in the state, the behaviour of the state and the nature of the state.

We need to re-establish society and resurrect helpfulness and kindness as virtues to admire. A World Health Organisation survey showed that in the 11-15 age group the majority interviewed in England did not feel that ‘most the students in the class were kind and helpful’. In Sweden over 75 per cent said that they were, but in England it was under 46 per cent.

Kindness, trust and niceness – what happened to these virtues? Was it Margaret Thatcher who began the slide away from the common good, with her ‘no such thing as society’ and the nation’s love affair with home purchase, leaving social housing never to recover?

If one of the primary needs is to create communities where we know each other, then we, from the bottom up, and the state, from the top down, need to take action.

In the grand sweep of policy, there are obvious big-picture items, including tackling poverty, reducing social exclusion and cutting crime. All help remove real causes of misery. But they are not the whole story. Just think of the number of times people say things along the lines of, ‘we may have been poor, but at least we were happy …’; so I am interested too in the smaller-scale measures.

Take one example: the question of how engaged someone is with their neighbours has huge knock-on effects on their participation in society, level of crime, happiness and even health. Government can hardly order people to talk to, or like, their neighbours, but at the micro-scale, what about councils doing more to help and encourage the organisation of street parties, so that people get to know each other?

Perhaps councils should be doing more to help online communities emerge in their areas? Measures such as providing easy-to-use and free website and online discussion forums can help people set up an online community for their street or neighbourhood – and of course click a link to print off some flyers to distribute to their neighbours.

If you look at the fastest-growing communities, they’re on the internet. And for young people, the fastest growing part of their internet activity are the social networks. Why? Because human beings crave social engagement. Websites such as Facebook are the new means to gossip, check who’s talking to who and who’s doing what and going where.

There’s no time tonight – but my chapter proffers ideas on, amongst others, parental behaviour, paternal responsibility giving power back to teachers to teach, and the ability to use that authority judiciously but without fear of being accused of harassment.

So – to bring my remarks to a conclusion – clearly a more equal society is vital in addressing much of the current malaise. But we also need to reward and revere our human good qualities and give them value and worth too.

We need to work on creating a feel-good society rather than a feel-bad one – and that ‘feel-good’ needs to come more from our behaviour and less from what we own or what we do for a living. We need to rebalance ‘me’ with ‘us’ by promoting and valuing the common good.

It isn’t necessarily the structures that can or will change. Change has to come from within and it is about the behaviour of the people who are part of those structures. This is not about morality, but about engagement, where consideration for others and the common good comes as high at least on our list as simply our own well-being.

If you think about what makes you happy – really happy – it isn’t just about what you have. It isn’t just about what you do. Status isn’t nothing, but it isn’t everything, and we have managed to create a value system that says it is. It’s not really status versus friendship – but it is about human relationships. After all, that’s what makes most peoples’ world go round!