A group of thinkers from the worlds of education, economics and politics – led by the LSE’s Lord Layard and backed by the Dalai Lama – yesterday launched a campaign to halt what it sees as a slide of the national psyche into potentially fatal misery. The gist is that we’re in this position because we don’t give enough to others, can’t connect with those around us, and have lost our sense of belonging. Add to that a lack of exercise, direction, resilience and ambition, and you've got a fairly gloomy picture. And that’s before we’ve even got onto the weather, or the plight of being a Chelsea supporter.
The group also defines trust as a ‘major determinant of happiness in a society’. Which seems fair enough (and a lot more plausible than it being a cigar called Hamlet). But the bad news is that, according to its study, only 30% of Brits reckon their peers can be trusted, down from 60% in the past half century.
This campaign may be well-timed, since it comes not long after Prime Minister David Cameron launched his own plan to measure the nation’s wellbeing. This raised eyebrows in many quarters, who questioned the usefulness of trying to pin down such a nebulous concept - especially as a bit of unhappiness could be seen as part and parcel of us getting back on our feet. But maybe the PM had the right idea: these experts are warning that unless we undergo a ‘radical cultural change’, teen suicides and mental illness will rise, and everyone will be going around on anti-depressants - despite the population being far better off materially than it ever has before.
Trouble is, not everyone agrees with the depressing diagnosis. According to a study by the OECD, Britain is among the top five nations for 'pro-social behaviour' - meaning we're kinder, more generous and eager to help others (our peers there are the US, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and apparently a blind person is least likely to be helped by a stranger if they're in Greece).
Of course that didn't stop the campaign launching yesterday, with a load of people standing in the street offering ‘free hugs’ and wearing badges with slogans like ‘love more!’ and ‘I’m up for more happiness!’ But will that be enough? The problem is that this kind of thing, while entirely laudable in its aim, ultimately comes down to individuals having the vision and motivation to stick with some major life changes.
And not necessarily the kind of changes that the mass media is suggesting that we make. The group’s 10 steps to happiness include giving, relating, exercising, appreciating stuff, trying out new things, having an aim, bouncing back from defeats, being comfortable with who you are and finding something to belong to. Nowhere in that list, as far as we can see, is ‘buy an iPad’, ‘watch X Factor’ or ‘panic over impending economic doom’...