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Apples, elephants and roosters

April 12, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social brain 

The other day I had coffee with Andy Gibson, founder of Mindapples, an organisation which – among other things – aims to give people the information and advice they need to maintain good mental health. As well as being a very active Fellow of the RSA, Andy is a great guy; energetic, ambitious, thoughtful and totally driven by the desire to help people have better lives. I was impressed by the way he combines a big vision with very practical ideas and interventions.

Having just the previous day chaired Jonathan Haidt we got on to elephants and riders. If it is the elephant of instinct which governs our emotions, how can talking to the rider of conscious thought make an impact? While recognising that every person has their own mind apples (the mental equivalent of five a day) there are some proven methods which are fairly easy to enact and which are shown to have an impact on our underlying sense of well-being. For example, regularly writing a list of the things which are good in our lives really does seem to have an effect on our overall positivity.

But what about the jungle; the paths of social norms, pressures and incentives which drive the elephant to take a particular course? How possible is it, I asked, to improve the mental health of employees if an organisation’s working practices tend to make people more anxious and alienated.

There is an echo here of the central argument of the Richard Sennett’ book The Corrosion of Character. The modern white collar workplace with its emphasis on employee flexibility, team working and mission may seem to provide an environment which is more conducive to well-being than the factory floor, but the loyalty expected of employees is not reciprocated by footloose firms driven by the interests of anonymous investors. Like much of Sennett’s work, aspect of the argument can be opaque and the evidence far from convincing, but many people recognise the description of workplaces where employees are supposed to show the responsibilities of committed corporate citizens but are in fact mere items of dispensable human capital. If I recall correctly, Sennett cites a study of poorly paid air stewards showing higher levels of depression and anxiety after they were told to project more warmth to passengers.

For organisations to adopt an holistic approach to mental health they may have to be willing to examine their business model. If the demands of competition or customer care (either because it is disrespectful or too respectful) are inimical to employee resilience or self-respect it may be better not even to try to improve well-being. And if an organisation’s business model has to change it might have implications for customers. I worry that the signs you see in public buildings and on public transport asking people not to abuse or assault staff reinforce a rather negative set of behavioural expectations, but I guess this is the idea I am getting at.

Fortunately, just yesterday, I saw a brilliant example of one small business  which has taken the brave step of changing the way it does business in order to assert the right of workers to be treated with respect. If the lead of Little Red Rooster in Norwich was to be followed so that it became socially unacceptable to place a face to face order while on a mobile phone, it would not only be good for the mental health of the staff, I suspect it would be a mind apple for the customers too.


Can well being be saved from obscurity?

March 13, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

Yesterday morning I chaired a joint event between the Office of National Statistics and the Economic and Social Research Council. First off were presentations from two enthusiastic DEFRA civil servants exploring the links and tensions between a focus on well-being and on sustainability. Although what they said about mapping ecosystems, understanding the social value of the environment and a ‘capitals based’ approach to accounting for national resources was interesting, and included reference to documents produced by the Treasury, it also suggested that DEFRA – rather like DfID – is a kind of alternative subsystem within Whitehall, very committed and progressive but also, apparently, somewhat marginal to the main business of Government (I hope I’m being unfair about this, if so do put me right).

The main conclusions I drew from a subsequent discussion were sobering. Although it is heartening that ONS has now started publishing the findings of its research , there turned out to be something of a crisis of confidence among the community of wellbeing watchers. In part this is the reliability of the data, in part the contrast between the fine-grained differences between conventional ‘objective’ measures of progress and more subjective values and feelings-based data, in part the fact that most of the early findings from the ONS research are rtaher bland and predictable. These factors add to worries about the credibility of the whole project in the eyes of the media, the public and policy makers.

As the conversation started to sag I took my responsibilities as chair seriously and tried to develop a more positive way of thinking about the impact of well being-based approaches.

Here it is.

Making the case for a more values-based approach to policy and measuring progress involves three different tasks. First, there is the painstaking long-term challenge of developing and gaining official acceptable for a new set of metrics. This will sometimes seem impossible and at other times futile, but in the end it can succeed. Crucially, advocates of different ways of measuring progress should comfort themselves with the knowledge that that it took statisticians decades to agree an accepted measure for conventional economic growth.

Second, part of the task is simply to challenge conventional debates; not to provide easy answers but to ask tricky questions. One of my favorites is how politicians think we can combine a pursuit of social mobility with increasing well being, when behavioral economists have shown that loss aversion is a more powerful emotion than pleasure at gains. In a society with perfect relative social mobility the people going up would be a bit happier but the equal number going down would be a lot more miserable. This doesn’t mean we should abandon the goals of social mobility or increasing well being, but that we need a more nuanced debate about what we mean by both terms.

Third, in the shorter term (while we are waiting out the decades before we have accepted international well being measures) it is still possible to use basic insights into well being to shape policy. Two examples: what we know about the long term impact on young people of protracted periods out of work should make it absolutely imperative that we tackle the problem even at the expense of resources dedicated to unemployment in older cohorts; also, the data showing a rapid fall off in well being among the very elderly provides the basis for paternalistic interventions to incentivise people to provide for their care needs towards the end of life (as the Dilnot Commission has advocated).

I can’t say I provided a framework to save well being from its detractors but at least people seemed to go off to lunch a little bit happier.


Doubled up in happiness

April 12, 2011 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Today is a happiness and well-being day. Well, sort of…

I started the morning doing a piece on the Today programme linked to the launch of Action for Happiness and the continuing work of the Office of National Statistics on well-being measures (by the way, the closing date for submission to the ONS consultation is Friday). On the radio, I was up against Sheila Lawlor from Politeia, who thinks the state shouldn’t really interfere in anything (apart from national defence) let alone trying to help us enjoy our lives.   

Then we launched Gallup’s well-being and health survey to a packed Great Room. Paul Allin from ONS and David Halpern from Number Ten responded to the data.

So, at the risk of being repetitive, this is a chance to summarise the main reasons in favour of Governments, and those seeking to influence Governments, wanting to understand what drives well-being.        

First, decades of research have offered reasons to believe (a) that GDP growth and a variety of other traditional indicators are not a sufficient basis for describing national social progress and (b) that there are reasonably reliable ways of measuring various forms of well-being.

Second, the debate about well-being can be more interesting and engaging than much of the technocratic squabbling which has passed for political debate since the decline of traditional class politics. Some people, like John Humphries this morning, criticise ideas like happiness and well-being by saying they are subjective notions. But not only can aspects of well-being be objectively measured and averaged across large groups, the very fact that these ideas are contested makes for a valuable debate.

Third, on a more personal level – and here I return to a tune I have been playing a lot lately – the debate about what makes us feel good and enjoy life helps us see that the things we want now, the things we want for the long term and the things which seem to make us happiest are often not the same and that part of being an effective person is understanding and grappling with this fact of human nature.

Fourth, all this stuff can lead to very concrete insights.  Action for Happiness (which has gone off like a rocket judging by the amount of traffic on its website) points out that investing in mental health services offers a much greater happiness premium than most other forms of public investment. David Halpern this morning emphasised (another old tune) that well-targeted spending on public health is much more cost effective in terms of well-being than spending on health care.

The Gallup people brought their own new dimensions. Their research puts fulfilling work at the top of the agenda and they say the UK isn’t too good at it. In comparison to the US, for example, only 42% of UK employees say their employer treats them more like a partner than a boss, whereas in the US it’s 59%. This has a big impact. 63% of people who Gallup describes as having ‘thriving’ lives say they have a good work environment but only 52% of those in poor work environments.

Fortunately, this is not an issue at the RSA. At John Adam Street Pilates is the secret to well–being and good employee relations. Staff pay for a group session on Tuesday lunchtimes and after several of my colleagues have watched me fail to touch my nose with my knee without straining and grunting, all my managerial authority has seeped away.  I wouldn’t be able to boss them around even if I wanted to.


Short term choices and long term well-being

February 18, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

When economists argue against Government intervention on the grounds that markets left to their own devices eventually find a benign equilibrium, a frequent riposte is to quote John Maynard Keynes: ‘The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead’.  Might this insight shape the debate about new measures of well-being?

Yesterday I chaired a conference which had well-being as one of its themes. The man from the Office of National Statistics described the preparation being done for the inclusion of well-being questions in the 2011 Integrated Household Survey. There was also a lot of praise for NEF’s report ‘Measuring our progress: the power of well-being’ which was published earlier this week.

NEF propose what they call a dynamic model of well-being which links external conditions (eg income, employment) and personal resources (eg self-esteem, resilience) to good functioning (eg having autonomy, being connected to others) and good feelings (eg happiness, satisfaction).

NEF’s work is powerful, as might be expected given the think tank has been looking at this issue for a decade. There is an interesting discussion in the paper about the relationship between objective ‘drivers’ and subjective ‘outcomes’ in terms of feelings of well-being. NEF says that a key tool emerging from the information to be compiled by ONS should be what they call drivers of well-being (DoW), those factors which are shown to be most relevant to well-being and therefore should be prioritised in policy making and resource allocation.

This can all get quite technical (I suspect all the issues I cover in this post have been well rehearsed in the burgeoning well-being literature). Indeed, there is a danger that a debate about what really matters to most people becomes one that only a few people can understand. So I am loath to introduce a new dimension of complexity, but this is where Keynes comes in.

The relationship between objective circumstance and well-being is itself dynamic. To give a trivial example, if I had been asked last week how I felt about life just before an expensive, intrusive and painful dental procedure I might have been even more gloomy than normal. But this is just a temporary phenomenon and very soon – in fact already – I actually feel better about myself for having sorted out my problem.

The shadow cast by today’s experiences varies greatly in length. Some bad experiences diminish in significance and can even make us stronger; for example curable physical illness, well managed bereavement, business failure. Others are much more likely to have long term detriment; for example, childhood neglect or acute mental illness.

Which brings me back to Keynes. Being always inclined to take a charitable view of politicians’ motives (something which has made me a target for some rather juicy abuse in the past), I don’t think the Coalition Government is uncaring about those being impacted by its crash austerity programme. However, I also think – and here there is an echo of Mrs Thatcher – the Coalition believes it is worth paying a high price in the short to medium term to achieve a fundamental restructuring of the state and of societal expectations.

As we have seen this week, part of that price is very high youth unemployment. But we also know that if young people experience a lengthy period of unemployment it appears to have lifetime effects on their ability to gain and hold on to a job; they may get work when the economy picks up but they are much more likely to lose it when the economic cycle turns again.

Weighting objective factors by their long term impact on well-being could help to encourage more responsible policy making.  It should influence the case made not just by Government but by the Opposition.

Coalition ministers accuse those who argue against severe austerity of being short-termist and irresponsible, but in opening up a debate about well-being (for which he is to be applauded) David Cameron may be providing the basis for a counter argument. It is certainly true that sooner or later the economy will pick up, austerity will end and people’s life circumstances will improve. In this sense the Coalition strategy is bound to succeed in the end. But not only is Keynes right that in the long run we are all dead, in the long run many will be scarred by – and all of us paying the price for – what has happened in the short term.


The state of well-being

December 16, 2009 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, Social brain 

When social historians they look back on the debates that emerged in the first years of the 21st century they are likely to notice a pronounced trend. This is the emergence of a field that might be labelled psycho-social policy. There are four distinct but overlapping sets of ideas:

First, that greater social justice lies not only in the legal, social or economic rights afforded to citizens but in ideas of capability and resilience, which are to some degree subjective.

Second, that progress as defined by economic growth and rising absolute levels of affluence across the income range has become uncoupled from aggregate levels of happiness or well-being across society

Third, that the success of policy interventions both in satisfying the public and achieving social outcomes involves not simply delivering service outputs but in affecting the values and behaviours of clients and citizens.

Fourth, that the crucial determinant of an individual’s life chances lie not only in their socio-economic circumstances but in psychological traits which emerge from some combination of genetic, parenting and cultural influences.        

Overall, I welcome these new ways of thinking about progress and fairness. They open up debates about the good life and the good society which are more interesting and engaging than the predominant recent form of electoral politics (a combination of tactical communication and technocratic policy making). Having said which, the objections to this turn in public discourse are not to be lightly dismissed.

They include questions about not just the objective measurability, but the conceptual clarity, of ideas like resilience, well-being and happiness. Wouldn’t constant happiness simply be a state of bovine complacency? What are we to make of a country such as the USA which seems to combine dynamism with poor levels of aggregate well-being? Isn’t the focus on individual characteristics simply a form of victim-blaming when we know that certain objective circumstances such as being unemployed or  chronically unwell are much more simply and directly associated with other poor outcomes? And, anyway, while issues such as economic redistribution or the provision of public services may be an appropriate domain for state action do we really want politicians imposing their account of happiness or well-bring on us?

These are difficult and complex issues. As Catherine Bennett’s piece in last week’s Observer shows, the arguments of those who emphasise psychological well-being are easy to caricature.  I have recently been involved in an ESRC project largely based on critiquing what the research director call ‘the therapeutic state’.

The goal must be to bring an awareness of the psychological and subjective components of reality more consistently into political and policy debate while avoiding the obvious traps.  It means that the advocates of this approach have to be rigorous in their own thinking and alert to the dangers of throwing ideas like well-being and character into debate half formed and poorly defined. Those who seek a more humanistic account of social progress need to be as willing to challenge their allies as their opponents.