As we approach what could be the UK’s last ever general election – which also happens to be a rather unnecessary and therefore unpopular one – it’s worth revisiting three big questions happiness scholars ask about elections:

  • do trends in national happiness (as measured by survey self-reports, for example) predict election results?
  • does happiness get any explicit attention in election manifestos and policy debates?
  • what should governments do to promote happiness?

On the first question, some intriguing evidence was provided two years ago at the time of the last UK general election, by George Ward of the London School of Economics. Whereas it has long been known that things like GDP, inflation, and (sometimes) major national sporting success can enhance the vote for governing parties, only recently has enough happiness information become available to make comparable assessments. Eurobarometer survey data for several countries over several years showed that national life satisfaction self-reports were stronger predictors of election results than unemployment, GDP, or inflation were. In other words, incumbent governments are retrospectively encouraged to promote the life satisfaction of citizens, even more strongly than they are encouraged to strengthen the headline indicators of the economy. Note that this has nothing directly to do with the very diverse and overall inconclusive findings on whether happier people are more likely to vote ‘left’ or ‘right’.

On the second question, we should of course remember the awkward relationship between what governments should promise in order to get elected, and what they should do once elected. On recent evidence from UK and USA, making wildly insincere promises is becoming essential to get you into power. Extravagant electoral promises are nothing new. Strangely, however, whereas we all know that explicit but wildly implausible happiness promises are used in commercial advertising to promote everything from cigars to tampons, happiness or wellbeing promises are rare in political manifestos – at most a couple of mentions per manifesto over the past century in the UK, for example, and never any substantial attention. Mission statements of social reform agencies show similar lack of interest in ultimate values. Engagement with happiness research is even rarer – it’s as if politicians  simply aren’t interested in how happiness happens, other than to make the occasional vacuous reminders that they care about our happiness. We’ve seen a proliferation of online ‘happiness manifestos’ in recent years, but these are mainly of the self-help variety, as if happiness were purely a private concern and not a political matter.

So let’s suppose you do get elected, with or without fake promises. What themes should be salient in your long-term plan to enhance happiness? Last year Danny Dorling in the New Statesman and at greater length in his book A Better Politics, argued in favour of a national happiness ministry to make sure happiness is taken seriously at the top level. This makes a great deal of sense: if anything requires a robust and powerful institution to promote effective joined-up governance, surely it is happiness. And such a ministry, he argued, would have a good evidence base to support a case for enhanced spending on health, social insurance, and employment protection.

Notably, most of the measures Dorling advocated are about reducing the causes of misery. Although this may not seem to be quite in the spirit of ‘positive psychology’ with which happiness research is so strongly associated, it does again make a great deal of sense. The UK suffers unacceptable levels of avoidable mortality at all ages. There is evidence that many of these are related to avoidable inequalities such as housing crises and unemployment, and cultural pathologies such as irresponsible diet, domestic violence, and reckless driving. Since all these things cause contagious unhappiness that adversely affects most of us, they must be the top priorities in national happiness policies.

More importantly, the third question of what governments should be doing for happiness reveals the woeful inadequacy of thinking about political morality in crass terms of ‘left’ versus ‘right’. Presenting his 1929 Conservative Manifesto, Stanley Baldwin said that ‘Great as are the benefits conferred upon the community by the public social services, the happiness of the individual depends primarily upon the conditions of his home life.’ At the end of the Century the Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven was sceptical of such views. Happiness isn’t just a private matter, and public welfare provision is relevant. But when he reviewed evidence on happiness and state welfare expenditure expenditure in Europe, he found to his surprise that there was no significant correlation between these factors. There wasn’t even a correlation between levels of social security provision and the distribution of self-reported happiness within nations.

Perhaps some day the efforts to contradict Veenhoven’s findings will become substantial and plausible, but we’re a long way from that. One of the most influential, but still implausible contradictors is Benjamin Radcliffe’s book The Political Economy of Human Happiness. Radcliff hyper-confidently claimed to have found clear evidence that ‘left-wing’ governments are better for happiness. But he retained the hopelessly blunt mantra that ‘left’ means generous big governments that spend a lot on public welfare. His evidence was far less conclusive than he claimed, and his interpretation of the statistics was often based on elementary confusions between correlations and ‘effects’. Like many happiness statisticians, Radcliffe assumed that happiness is an outcome, not a cause of the factors he examined. So we must continue to doubt the assumption that – evaluated through a happiness lens – the best government is the biggest public spender.

We may, of course, choose to favour generous public spending on grounds of justice or rights instead. More intelligently, we might enquire into the different ways of spending generously – for example, into the finer details of how welfare regimes can avoid moral hazards such as robbing welfare recipients of dignity and agency. But from a happiness perspective it’s doubtful whether generous spending is in itself a good thing.

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