Something I've meaning to post here for a while - but too busy helping get it off the ground to do so - is my hosting of Play's The Thing: Creative Perspectives on Wellbeing (Nov 22-23, 2011 - yes, next week!). Taking place in Toynbee Studios, London, it's been organised by Escape Artists, a social arts charity, and funded by the European Commission.
I've written this op-ed for the Guardian (see below for a fully referenced version, and this PDF of the newsprint version) setting out the main argument of the conference. This is the second time I've worried away at the relationship between government and wellbeing in the Guardian. Interesting to compare the two pieces, and my shift towards a greater environmental anxiety, which softens my perspective on the worth of "wellbeing" talk.
Tickets still available for Play's The Thing, don't delay! And all comments welcome.
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By putting a price on unhappiness we can understand the need for a gentler response to the economic crisis
Pat Kane, The Guardian, 14 Nov 2011
If you were looking for economic hard-noses among our European national leaders, you wouldn’t have to look much farther than Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron. Sarkozy telling an abject Greece there are macroeconomic “rules that have to be respected”; Cameron unrelenting on his deficit and debt agenda, in the face of the tyranny of the bond markets. Homo economicus, in full pomp.
Yet after the last crash – in Cameron’s case, before – both men were talking a different language of the market. Sarkozy launched a commission in 2009, chaired by the now-sainted Joseph Stiglitz, to explore alternatives to GDP as the primary measure of social progress.
Cameron’s stab at a “GWB” (General Well-Being), first essayed in the blithe and creditworthy days of 2005, has quietly proceeded through the machinery of coalition government. At the start of November, the Office for National Statistics announced its “10 indicators of wellbeing”, which will be used to guide attitudinal surveys in the future.
Snorts of derision over your rye-bread, no doubt, as job creation stalls, unemployment rolls rise and political parties sharpen their claws (and clauses) for contest. Yet as I’ve found in helping to organise a conference on creative approaches to wellbeing, we should try to take a step or two back from the grim financial determinism of the moment.
Democracy only functions healthily if we believe we can imagine conditions other than they are. And wellbeing is an open enough concept, firmly at the heart of government, to allow our policy-brains to stop pressing the panic button.
One of our speakers, William Davies, wonders whether the UK government’s commitment to measuring, and then making policy on, the nation’s wellbeing is one of the biggest own-goals ever perpetrated by the administrative classes.
Take a method called “income-compensation technique” – derived from wellbeing studies and psychological damage assessments in legal cases. Using data on the correlation between happiness and take-home pay, it claims to identify the amount of money it would take to compensate a person for losing access to a free public good (for example, arts events or sporting facilities). A Department of Culture, Media and Sport report in 2010 estimated that the psychological satisfaction derived from a person attending concerts regularly was worth £9,000 of extra income.
This method – putting a price on unhappiness – can be extended to other areas. A Young Foundation report calculated that the psychological injury of being made unemployed would require a compensatory income of £23,000 per month. If the wellbeing mandarins are serious about calculating the “psycho-economic return” on investment, they might be forced to admit that the best returns come from public spending and occupational security, not private spending and labour-market turbulence. As Davies quips, in a Marxian way, “a spectre is haunting liberal economics”.
So wellbeing indicators, taken seriously at government level, could justify a gentler, more Keynesian response to the national deficit and global economic crisis. But in these systemically shaky times, the charge of irrelevance and navel-gazing is easily raised.
Rather than angsting about general ill-being, shouldn’t we be firing up the raging energies of "mathletic" entrepreneurs – coding, designing and splicing new markets into being? In the face of Asia and South America, implacably ascending their development curves to middle-class prosperity, don’t we need more edgy disatisfaction and nervy, competitive ambition on these islands – and indeed, this continent – not less?
For figures such as historian Niall Ferguson, the wellbeing agenda is an example of Europeans as “the idlers of the world”. We’ve wrapped ourselves in a wet blanket of psycho-socio-babble, recoiling from the creative destruction and disruptive innovation required to lift us out of a static economy.
Yet when you gather together the tribes of wellbeing, you hardly discover a lack of enterprise or innovation. The question is the nature of the “new” that’s being sought. The other “spectre” that haunts liberal economics – other than the lingering unhappiness that its happy-clappy consumerism generates – is the broaching of planetary boundaries for survival. This was forcibly restated in last week’s report from the International Energy Agency, which referred to the extreme climatic urgency of de-carbonising our industries and economies.
Yes, let’s fund primary science to keep open the possibility of radical innovation around energy and efficiency. Let’s retain a Victorian-style ambition about constructing grand new infrastructures to answer our needs for mobility, housing, communication.
But what also needs to happen is precisely the kind of innovation around lifestyles, cultures and values pursued by those at the eco-minded end of the wellbeing agenda – seeing a low-carbon society as an opportunity for social excitement and behavioural novelty. For who else will build the mindsets, and communally forge the habits, that prepare us to cope with radical change – both the changes we invite, and the changes we’ll have to endure?
And in terms of leading people out of their consumerist echo-chambers and into engagement with these prospects, play’s the thing. Take architect Indy Johar, who founded HubWestminster in cavernous empty office space behind the Institute of Directors. It’s a new incarnation of the Institute for Contemporary Arts 1947 slogan, “a playground for the mind”. Go there any evening if you want to sample the nexus between Occupy St Paul’s and the “big society”.
In this milieu, people with ideas are driven to create new practices, not just deliver papers. Writer Marek Kohn is advising the Sunshine Bank, which hopes to turn the desire for mutual recognition into an alternative currency system for communities and companies. Alice Taylor, ex-head of games at Channel 4, is building a new platform for toys that combines virtual play and local manufacture, aimed at fomenting craft values and ideas of non-disposability among kids. Tech entrepreneur Dougald Hine has a sideline deploying local bohemia to revive moribund retail outlets, such as the revitalised Brixton Village.
At our conference, we also have Buddhists and neuroscientists, radical artists and improvisers – people who have always found a way (mostly internally) to maintain their mental and social resilience in the face of endemic change. The point is that a real diversity of input is essential to thinking and feeling our way beyond the cyclical hysterics of capitalism.
Wellbeing is the kerchief in the top-pocket of the suited men striding through the current economic drama. We should give it a good tug, and see what comes out.