You are currently browsing Sam Thompson’s articles.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

NakedNot the sustainably-minded folk at The Naturist Society, that’s for sure. And if that whets your appetite, here’s a list of 30 green things naturists can do in the course of their naked lives.

Of course, here at nef we long since abandoned the wasteful, environmentally damaging practice of wearing clothes in the office. It’s good to see the rest of the world beginning to catch-up.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Much of the happiness and well-being research that you read about is based on answers to very simple self-report questions: How satisfied are you with your life overall? How happy have you been recently? How often have you felt miserable in the last two weeks? and so on.

Reliance on these kinds of measures has sometimes led to criticism. But there has always been plenty of evidence that even such apparently simplistic self-report questions can be potent indicators of physical and psychological well-being. A striking example is this new study, which tracked older adults over a five year period.

Those with self-reported depression [rating of agreement with the statement: “I felt depressed”]  had a 5-year mortality of 30.2% versus 19.7% in those without self-reported depression […] . This association persisted after adjustment for age, sex, education, functional status, and cognition

Subjective indicators will never tell the whole story and, as we set-out at some length in our National Accounts of Well-being, policy makers need to use multiple measures to truly understand how people feel and function in their lives and so make better decisions. But every now and again it’s nice to reconfirm that self-reported measures of well-being really do map-on to “hard” outcomes, and in a useful way.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Via Environmental Economics, here’s a rather striking graph from a recent Gallup survey


Now, it’s probably no surprise that when the economy starts tanking, public opinion swings in favour of fixing it quickly. Judging from the graph, it looks like much the same kind if thing happened during the dot-com crash.

But the interesting point about these questions is that they are framed explicitly in terms of trade-offs. With that in mind, it’s surprising just how receptive US public opinion appears to have been in the 80s and 90s towards the idea of giving up some GDP for environmental protection. Even as US Senators were lining up behind the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which argued explicitly against ratifying the Kyoto protocol because it might threaten the US economy, a clear two-thirds of people were in favour of environmental measures “even at the risk of curbing economic growth”.

What people say in surveys and what they actually do are not the same thing, of course. Still, makes you wonder what might have been achieved with a bit of bold political leadership.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

.. there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:10).

“Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.”

Indeed we can’t, as nef and many others have been saying for ages.  Still, nice to hear it from Thomas Friedman, for years one of the most vocal champions of free-trade and deregulated globalisation. In fairness, it’s been coming for a while, but such a plain-speaking recognition of the real environmental limits to our current economic model is nonetheless very welcome.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

From Michael Lewis (via Dani Rodrik), everything you need to know about the Icelandic banking fiasco, explained with the help of a handy animal analogy.

You have a dog, and I have a cat. We agree that they are each worth a billion dollars. You sell me the dog for a billion, and I sell you the cat for a billion. Now we are no longer pet owners, but Icelandic banks, with a billion dollars in new assets.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Early Day Motions in parliament tend to slip by unnoticed much of the time, but this one from Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson is definitely worth a second glance:

Happiness and Public Policy

That this House believes that the promotion of happiness and well-being are legitimate and important goals of Government; notes a GfK NOP poll showed 81 per cent. of people believe Government’s prime objective should be happiness, not wealth; notes large surveys, including Eurobarometer, that show the UK’s happiness has remained static for at least 25 years; recognises the Government can influence some factors that affect happiness, such as unemployment and respite for carers; welcomes the Government’s Foresight report into Mental Capital and Well-being showing how well-being promotion is possible; and calls for official and regularly conducted statistics on national happiness and well-being to inform policy-making.

30 signatures and counting, with at least some support from all sides of the House and a few noteworthy names. Of course, we’ve been banging on about this well-being stuff for ages, but it’s good to see the ideas permeating into places that matter.

The notion of “official and regularly conducted statistics on national happiness and well-being” sounds particularly intriguing.

I should watch this space, if I were you…

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

With timing so precipitous as to border on the comic, Chancellor Alistair Darling chose to announce a cut in VAT in the same week as Buy Nothing Day, today’s annual jamboree of anti-consumerism that urges us to forsake all consumer spending for 24 hours. Suggested activities on the BND website include temper tantrums – “Sit on the floor in any shop with a friend and chuck a mental. Shout things like ‘I don’t want anything anymore!” – and zombie shopping excursions of like-minded individuals dressed in ghoulish garb and “shuffling from shop to shop chanting BUY, BUY – BRANDS, BRANDS!” All good fun, but as anyone familiar with Oxford Street on a normal Saturday will know hardly an effective way to grab attention. The protesters will blend in seamlessly.Bliss!

But whatever your view of BND, you might still find it a little odd that our Government is somehow trying to elide consumerism and civic duty, two things that are – or should be – about as far apart on the individual-society spectrum as it’s possible to get. Whilst not, perhaps, as banally distasteful as George W Bush’s exhortation to Americans to respond to 9/11 by going shopping, there is something discomforting about the Government’s plea. For as unemployment rises, property prices plummet and millions live in fear of their next credit card bill, this should be a moment to step back and reassess whether the way we consume has taken us nearer to, or further from, the kinds of lives we really want.

For years, we’ve lived with a poisonous combination of messages: on the one hand, constant bombardment from advertisers intent on telling us how hollow our lives are without magical Product X and, on the other, staggeringly easy access to credit with which to acquire Product X on the never-never. There are plenty of reasons to worry about this. Perhaps the most obvious is the indisputable link between Western levels of consumption and unsustainable environmental pressure. We can’t expect to keep living as we have been doing and stave off irreversible climate change, let alone repair the damage to ecosystem services and biodiversity caused by our profligacy and attain some measure of global social justice.

There are significant downsides at the personal level too. For instance, recent research from the renowned Institute of Psychiatry in London shows that personal debt “mediates” the relationship between poor economic circumstances and mental health difficulties. In other words, the further up to your neck you are in debt, the higher your chances of developing clinically significant anxiety and depression, largely irrespective of how much you earn. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be. The stress of working just to keep up repayments and the fear of defaulting are constant and gnawing, and that’s without having to deal with the feelings of shame and inadequacy if things really go wrong. There will be plenty of former bankers and traders in serious emotional distress at present, and that is not something anyone should be celebrating.

There is also a more subtle, but no less damaging aspect to all this focus on personal consumption. People who are strongly motivated by the idea of getting rich and famous are what psychologists (despairingly) and marketeers (delightedly) refer to as “materialistic”. The scientific evidence for negative impacts from materialism is pretty overwhelming; they range from poorer personal relationships through fewer good moods and lower self-esteem to increased prevalence of psychological symptoms. Ironically, given the consumption-as-moral-imperative line implicit in the VAT cut, materialistic people have been shown to be generally more selfish and less inclined to help others, even when there it little personal cost involved. Fascinatingly, in one study, the extent of individuals’ materialistic outlook was shown to be positively correlated with their ecological footprints.

If Western-style consumerism, with its attendant values and attitudes, aren’t making us happy, what might do? Possible answers are provided by nef’s mental health equivalent of “five fruit and veg a day”, which we distilled from the evidence on improving well-being and warding-off mental health difficulties. What we came up with was a list of simple, everyday activities, arranged around five core concepts: Connect… Be active… Take notice… Keep learning… Give…

There is a reason that none of these suggestions involve consuming more or striving to get richer, and it has nothing to do with our ideological preferences. The reason is that they are based on the best available scientific evidence, and the best available evidence is unequivocal. The road to well-being is not paved with gold, but lined with friends and family, punctuated by opportunities for enjoyable detours, and is more about the journey than the destination. The happiest people in the world are those who spend their time engaging with life to the full, sharing experiences with friends and savouring the moment. The least happy are those who spend it slumped in front of the TV wishing they were Paris Hilton. And that, as they say, is a fact.

It is all enough to give us cause to reflect on what would really be the best way to spend this Buy Nothing Day Saturday. For those of us who are consuming way beyond our means (and the Earth’s) it is about time we started buying less every day. Do that, and the evidence shows our lives are likely to be richer as a result.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

For those of us who worry that unconstrained spending on meaningless luxury items might not, after all, be the best route to happiness, this is a distinctly positive development. (Hat tip Lynne Kiesling)

One newly reformed spendthrift noted that the current economic climate is

“a time to stay home, spend time with friends and connect.”

Exactly. Of course, this might well have been a more useful way for people to occupy themselves the first place.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

The inestimable Ben Goldacre worries that doctors might be culpable in “medicalising a social problem”:

There are 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit today, after all, the largest single group of workless people, and every practical aspect of their lives, their housing, their income, their social role, is founded in an ongoing belief in themselves as incapable people, sanctioned by doctors. We haven’t really researched what the consequences of that will be.

Indeed we haven’t (and it would be tricky to get an RCT past the ethics committee). Still, we might hazard a guess that they won’t be too positive. Having a sense of oneself as autonomous and capable is a critical component of experienced well-being; the converse, enduring low self esteem and feelings of worthlessness, are well-established risk factors for mental health difficulties such as depression. Given that around 40% of people on incapacity benefit got there in the first place because of just these kinds of problems, there seems to be every possibility of vicious circles forming.

But Ben might be blaming himself, or at least his profession, a little too much here. The broader thing to notice in the debate about incapacity benefit is how the notions of “capacity” and “being in paid work” have become tacitly synonymous. Because we fail to value unpaid and voluntary activities, the only kind of contribution that the welfare system recognises as worthwhile is having a full-time job. The result is that we end up sorting people into black and white categories: those who can work (the “capable”) and those who can’t. This is deeply unhelpful, not just because of the potential impact on them as individuals but also because of the sheer waste of talent and ability.

TimebankersA simple change of terminology would be a good start – just because an illness or disability limits your ability to do some kinds of work, this does not render you “incapable”. But in the longer term a smarter system, based on principles of co-production and a much more thoroughgoing concept of “value”, would surely be better for everyone concerned. nef‘s recently launched report on timebanking, a system in which people’s contribution to helping each other or an agency is valued at 1 hour = 1 credit, offers an alternative way of valuing people’s skills and knowledge. Timebanking has been particularly effective in enabling people with mental health problems to contribute to society (not least by helping in each others’ recovery) outside the sphere of the market.

Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

As people start getting stuck into the polling data in the wake of Obama’s victory, some interesting patterns are emerging. This, for instance, is pretty striking:

youthvoteRelative to 2004, the number of under 30s who voted stayed pretty much the same, but their preference swung strongly toward the Democrats.

Now, there are probably any number of ways of explaining this result, but it’s interesting when read in conjunction with recent research on the relative happiness of younger and older people. In short, younger people tend to be more optimistic about how happy they will be the future, whilst underestimating how happy there were in the past.

Needless to say, optimism was a central feature of Obama’s campaign. Rather than running on a negative, Bush-bashing platform (the temptation!), his core message – “Yes we can” – was about the possibility of change and a better future. It seems at least plausible, then, that the optimistic tone of Obama’s campaign was especially appealing to young voters who were already strongly disposed to see the future in a positive light.

Whether or not this explanation stacks up, it’s at least a worthy reminder of the power of optimism as a motivating force. In many respects the world is in a mess, and there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that emphasising our problems is the best way to make people want to do something about them. When we think about the scale of the challenge, especially on environmental issues, it’s all too easy to come across as downbeat and negative. But for the unconverted, it’s a short step from here to apathy, and from there the merest hop over the border into nihilism.

So yes, let’s make be realistic about the difficulties we face now, but make sure we tell an optimistic story about what’s to come.


This blog is operated by nef (the new economics foundation).

Follow us on:



Put People First
Airplot - join the plot
nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.