What is happiness and should politics or democracy play a role?

The UK started measuring national wellbeing in 2012, measuring things like health, employment, and satisfaction with family life. However, the question remains as to what ‘happiness’ is, and whether the state plays a role in ensuring the happiness of the nation – after all, if they’re not going to, why should it be measured at all.

Most fully matured adults will tell you that there have been times when, despite everything in their lives seemingly going well, they have been ‘unhappy’. However, since I am unprepared to solve the problem of the human condition and the many and various existential crises that you, or I, will experience in our now seemingly never ending lives, I’m going to ignore this little fact and pretend that human beings are wholly rational and wholly predictable. For now. We’ll come to the rest later on.

So, for the sake of argument I want to posit that the basis for happiness, in the first instance, is the fulfilment of our needs and for this I will refer to Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. Maslow identified the needs that need to be satisfied for human beings to thrive. It begins with the most basic physical needs that must be satisfied for human survival: food, water, shelter (and general protection of the elements), sex and sleep etc. No one could deny that society largely accepts that if individuals cannot meet most of these needs that the Government should become involved to provide them. Even those like sex or sleep, which we would think outside the purview of Government are covered within the national healthcare system – those who want, but are unable, to sleep or have sex may be provided with the help and support they need to attempt to overcome whatever may be preventing them, be it physical or psychological.

The second set of needs are safety needs, all of which, I would argue, the state attempts to provide, through fire service, police, military, legal system and even through the healthcare system’s psychiatric services (where citizens can receive help with psychological threats, such as phobias).

The third and forth set of needs: love and belonging, and esteem needs, remain largely uncovered by Government. The fifth, cognitive needs – those of knowledge and understanding – are potentially covered through the education system, likewise the sixth, aesthetic needs, provided through museums, galleries, state funding to the theatre and opera etc. through the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

The seventh, ‘self-actualisation’, it could be argued, is attempted through any Government endeavour to increase equality and support individuals in realising their potential. This means that the only areas that the Government doesn’t cover are the third and forth set of needs: love and belonging, and esteem needs.

I believe we may be looking at the purpose of Government in entirely the wrong way. The governing system of the UK has slowly evolved over time, without a written constitution, in fits and violent starts over at least 800 years. Whilst technological advances and fairly rapid culture change has created an energetic environment for conversation about the future of democracy and the potential for far-reaching reform – the purpose of Government itself is still fairly unexamined, potentially regarded as a given.

The correlation between the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy and the service the Government provides for citizens implies that, although we may not frame it as such, we do accept the role of Government in providing life satisfaction. Moreover (I said I’d come to it), it is possible to receive treatment for unhappiness, depression and anxiety through the health service, although to a tragically limited degree.

As technology advances our basic needs are easier to meet, though we still live as if this were not the case. Production levels are so improved by technology that the fiction we need to maintain the same working hours as we did even 20 years ago, to provide the same level of wealth is entirely illogical. “Lump of labour” implies that reducing working hours would decrease unemployment, which doesn’t take into account the many varying factors that affect the demand for labour. However, as the economist has reported on many occasions, productivity appears to decline with an increase in the number of hours worked, so even without the benefit of increased employment, the actual productivity value of hours worked would improve, giving citizens the opportunity to pursue other needs, potentially improving their life satisfaction in the process.

I am not arguing specifically for reducing working hours, my point is that if we begin to view the role of Government differently – as a facilitator of our overall happiness – then this would be a reasonable debate to take place at Parliamentary level, potentially reducing working hours through legislation, such as the 19th Century Factory Acts that aimed to improve workers’ welfare.

Likewise, if we begin to view current services provided by the Government in the frame of happiness, will this lead to actual changes in service provision? If we recognise that there is a hierarchy of needs, does that mean we should also view services in the same hierarchy? If so, it may mean we need to take a fresh look at what services we provide and more importantly those that we don’t, that may be more pressing.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs.svg - wikicommons


2 replies on “What is happiness and should politics or democracy play a role?”

  1. I think these stats show that the UK has the shortest annual average working hours in the OECD: apart from all other EU states. http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS

    That’s partly down to two things: a working time directive implementation that’s weaker than the rest of the EU (here, you are permitted to work more than 48 hours; but theoretically can’t be required to), and 5.6 weeks statutory holiday entitlement. We also have a statutory minimum wage, which should help reduce the demand for long working hours. All these things were legislated in 1998. The Factories Acts limited the working week to 60 hours.

    Having useful, valued work is important to self-actualization: whether it’s through employment or otherwise. But you’re right: it’s important for Government to continue to play an active role here.

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