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‘ “Want to grab some lunch?” ask a couple of colleagues as they walk past your desk’. This is the unconventional opening of the excellent MINDSPACE report on influencing behaviour through public policy, here taking its own advice in making information seem relevant to the people at whom it is aimed (in this case, civil servants designing policy).
Commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published earlier this year by the Institute for Government, MINDSPACE is a mnemonic for nine key influences on behaviour which should be given attention in the policy-making process. Drawn from the extensive literature on what influences our behaviour, MINDSPACE sets out that: we are heavily affected by the Messenger delivering information; respond to Incentives through shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses; we are influenced by the Norms of what others do; go with the flow of Defaults; we are drawn to Salient information and Primed by sub-conscious cues; are strongly influenced by Affect, that is, our emotional experiences; seek to be consistent to the public Commitments we make and act in ways which make us feel better about ourselves and thus protect our Ego.
The report contains lots of illuminating examples showing how these influences can be and have been used in designing policy. It also makes two very important observations about policy making as a whole. First, that
whether we like it or not, the actions of policymakers, public service professionals, markets and our fellow citizens around us have big, and often unintended, impacts on our behaviour. ‘Doing nothing’ is never a neutral option
This is of key relevance to those of us advocating a well-being led approach to policy-making. While we are often accused of wanting policy to overly interfere in people’s lives, in fact, given that all policy affects behaviour, it is also very likely to affect how people experience their lives. So policy-makers should see themselves as having to ensure that the effects they create through their policy decisions are postive rather than negative to well-being overall.
The second key observation is that
Government needs to understand the ways it may be changing the behaviour of citizens unintentionally…some priming effects work in surprising ways.
For me, this is an excellent summary of the reasons why nef advocates using well-being measures as ultimate indicators of society’s progress. When government focuses its energies on the growth of the country’s GDP, we are thereby primed to behave as though economic factors are the most important influence on our personal well-being, although the evidence, and much of our ‘folk knowledge’, suggests otherwise. By concentrating instead on the well-being outcomes of its policies, government could help us all to improve our own well-being by prioritising what really matters.
TED, the organisers of high profile conferences devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ have just announced the line up for next month’s TEDGlobal 2010, which includes not one, but two nef Fellows. Nic Marks, Founder of nef‘s centre for well-being and creator of the Happy Planet Index will be taking the stage in Oxford in the opening session of the conference, on 13 July, followed two day’s later by nef fellow Tim Jackson, author of the ground-breaking Prosperity Without Growth. Other speakers include David McCandless, author of the Information Is Beautiful blog, architect David Adjaye, and singer Annie Lennox, talking about her work on HIV/AIDS.
If you’ve never visited the TED site, its back catalogue of talks by a dazzling array of speakers from previous conferences is highly recommended viewing. A few gems from the all-time favourites category include Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity, Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice, Dan Gilbert on what makes us happy, and Hans Rosling in the most spectacular talk on statistics in the whole world, ever.
Saamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.
It’s been rumbling for almost three years and it may well still rumble on for a little longer, but a little volcano may soon erupt in the tiny nation of… well, Luxembourg. The European Statistics Agency Eurostat last week declared public the outputs of a project we and others have been carrying out for them for two years on how to measure the well-being of people in Europe. The project will form the basis of a new set of well-being indicators to be published by Eurostat on a regular basis, alongside drier indicators on R&D expenditure, fishing boat stocks and, of course, GDP.
This might not seem like a volcano, but it could potentially be a huge fillip to the case for measuring progress differently – Eurostat have the resources and wherewithal to collect robust regular data across Europe. Collecting data obviously won’t change the world alone, but it’s a prerequisite to actually using data, and to supporting well-being as a public policy goal.
Over the next few months, Eurostat will be busying itself making sure well-being data meets their demanding standards and, implementing changes in conjunction with other parts of the European apparatus, member states and survey teams. A geeky success, but an important one nevertheless…
Juliet and Saamah’s letter to the Times today points some of the misconceptions in last Saturday’s leading article on well-being economics. And there’s plenty more that they could have said, given enough space. For example, the leader argues that
There is more to life than [happiness]. There are many forms of life — monastic devotion, public service, freedom fighter — in which the pursuit of happiness is a subsidiary value, if it appears at all.
As someone who counts among his friends several public servants, a handful of people who you might call freedom fighters and one monk, I find this suggestion rather strange. Why shouldn’t happiness figure as major part of their lives?
It depends, of course, how you define happiness. The Times seems to equate it with pleasant feelings and positive emotions, what the philosopher Owen Flanagan calls the ‘standard American’ or ‘joy-joy-click-your-heels’ understanding of happiness. But anyone working in the field of positive psychology or well-being economics knows that positive feelings are only one minor part of a much broader and well-established definition of happiness, which includes finding meaning in work and daily activities, good relationships with others, inner resilience, individual vitality and a feeling of autonomy and freedom. There’s no reason why this deeper understanding of happiness, or rather well-being, shouldn’t figure in the types of vocation mentioned in the article.
After all, nef fellow and psychologist Tim Kasser and his colleague Malte Klar recently published a paper outlining the well-being benefits of engaging in political activism and campaigning. They found that
in both college student and national samples, well-being was higher to the extent people self identified as an activist, expressed commitment to the activist role, and reported engaging or intending to engage in activist behaviors. Results were similar across measures of hedonic well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and positive affect), eudaimonic well-being (e.g., personal growth, purpose in life, vitality), and social well-being (e.g., social integration). The results of both studies also suggest that activists are more likely to experience the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, an indicator of more frequent experiences of intrinsic motivation. Both Studies 1 and 2 also showed that significantly larger percentages of activists met preexisting criteria for “human flourishing” (Keyes, 2002) than did those less engaged in activism.
It seems that freedom fighters can be happy after all.
We agree that when making policy, a broad account of flourishing — including autonomy, meaningful activities and strong relationships — is more useful than a narrow focus on happiness, which risks denoting merely momentary or passing pleasures (“The end of government”, leading article, Mar 27). But given the wide range of influences on our experiences of life, government policy — however it is shaped — will inescapably affect our wellbeing, for good or for ill.
This is very far from “forcing people to be happy”. The findings of an established body of research suggest that current policy, focused beyond all else on stimulating economic growth, crowds out from daily life the activities known to lead to wellbeing: connecting with others, learning new skills or giving our time.
Gauging government success, according to National Accounts of Well-being, would provide the incentives to create policy firmly focused on improving the lives of UK citizens. Our research, first published last year, shows how wellbeing, understood as a multifaceted, dynamic concept, could be robustly and systematically measured.
The inventors of gross domestic product (GDP) never intended it to become the compass that guides all policymaking. Today’s environmental crisis makes the shortcomings of GDP all too clear: it rises when forests are cut down or when money is spent cleaning up an oil slick. With both our natural and social support systems being pushed to breaking point, finding a better measure of progress has never been more urgent.
Juliet Michaelson and Saamah Abdallah
Centre for Wellbeing
nef (the new economics foundation)
Before a room of 150 planners, architects, engineers, and developers who gathered on Wednesday night at the Building Centre in central London, nef set out the key ideas in its latest report Good Foundations: towards a low carbon, high well-being built environment.
The places and spaces we create form the back-drop of our everyday lives, providing a visual marker of the values that we live by. So why is it that we have ended up with a development model for the built environment so disconnected from those things in life that really matter? Sunand Prasad, immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, reflected that ‘the metrics of success have been too narrow’, while journalist Anna Minton explained that ‘we have lost a notion of the public good, both conceptually and literally’. Both accounts indicate that the priorities of decision makers are somehow out of touch with the things that make the biggest difference to our lives, now and in the future. In particular, the preoccupation with short-term financial returns has meant that we have increasingly treated our houses and public spaces as commodities to be traded, rather than things of inherent value that contribute to our individual and collective well-being.
As efforts to patch up the current financial system continue, and investment into development projects begins to regain momentum, Good Foundations calls for a development model that is fit for purpose. As Stewart Wallis, Executive Director of nef, emphasised, the stakes are high. Today’s challenges – climate change, spatial inequality, low levels of trust and belonging, weak local economies and poor housing quality, require a pro-active response in re-thinking an alternative vision of successful development, which balances social, economic and environmental value with financial return.
But how do we incorporate a broader definition of value that properly takes into account the drivers of people’s well-being into the way we plan, design and develop our neighbourhoods? Good Foundations, sets out a proposition – that when, in 20 years time, we examine the results of our efforts today, our markers of success should be neighbourhoods that promote two key outcomes. These are:
- place Happiness, the personal, social and economic well-being of their inhabitants, and
- place Sustainability, which arises from minimising the environmental impact throughout both the construction process and lifetime of a building or place.
The aim of Good Foundations, the final report of a project funded by the Happold Trust, was always to stimulate the beginnings of a cultural shift in the built environment sector. During last night’s discussions, comments from the audience were reassuringly ambitious. In thinking about the report’s final recommendation to test and develop the mechanisms we propose in practice, it was suggested that a sustainable well-being approach should be applied to large infrastructural projects including the development of zero carbon neighbourhoods and large-scale retrofit projects.
Recognition in the sector of the interdependence of well-being and sustainability is critical, not least because the built environment influences all of us when it comes to the choices and decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. As last night proved, the enthusiasm for a genuinely new way of doing things is there. The burning question that remains is: where will the UK’s first low carbon, high well-being neighbourhood be?
Imagine a new ‘standard’ working week of 21 hours. Not 35 hours, or a four-day week, but 21 hours or its equivalent spread across the calendar year.
How would it feel to wake up on a chilly February morning? More time in bed, more time with the kids, more time to read, see your mum, hang out with friends, repair the guttering, make music, fix lunch, walk in the park. Whatever you need or want to do.
Outlandish? Well, it’s less radical than the vision of John Maynard Keynes. He imagined a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century, because he thought we’d no longer have to work long hours to satisfy our material needs.
His forecast was wrong, not least because our definition of material needs has grossly expanded. In fact, the ‘normal’ working week lengthened in the last decades of the 20th century, with two-adult households adding six hours a week to their combined paid workload. Many of us work longer and harder to earn enough to buy what we need (or think we need), to keep or improve our place in the world, or simply to make ends meet. Meanwhile, others have too little employment, or none at all.
But Keynes was right to envisage a need to think differently about how we use and value time. In the 21st century, moving towards much shorter hours of paid employment could be a critical factor in heading off environmental, social and economic catastrophe. In the developed world, most of us are consuming well beyond our economic means, well beyond the limits of the natural world and in ways that ultimately fail to satisfy us.
Economic growth has depended on a volatile mix of depressed wages and escalating material consumption. So workers have borrowed to consume what they cannot afford and now the credit bubble has burst. Politicians are urging us all to shop harder to help the economy recover and grow. Yet natural resources are critically depleted by high-rolling consumerism and the climate clock is ticking. While some of us accumulate more and more material goods, others have less and less of life’s essentials.
We have even managed in our increasingly unequal society to divvy up time as an unequal commodity. Under-employment as well as unemployment is prevalent in low-income groups. Nearly 2.5 million are currently unemployed. Nearly one million worked part-time in the third quarter of 2009, because they could not find a full-time job, a rise of 30,000 over the previous quarter and up 30 per cent since the 2008.
A more equal distribution of working time would have clear environmental benefits. Leading economists are turning their attention to how we can manage with little or no economic growth, on the ground that continuing growth in the developed world cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently or in time to avoid disastrous climate change. Tim Jackson, Peter Victor and others have identified shorter working hours as one way to reduce labour and output overall without intensifying hardship or widening inequalities: share out the total of paid work more evenly across the population.
A 21-hour working week is a long way from today’s standard of 40 hours or more, but not so far-fetched when you consider the infinitely varied ways in which we actually spend our time. On average, people of working age spend 19.6 hours a week in paid employment and 20.4 hours in unpaid housework and childcare. Of course these averages mask huge inequalities, both between women and men and between income groups – not only in how they use their time, but also in how far they can control it. Bringing the standard nearer to the average could help to iron out these differences.
Moving towards a standard of 21 hours could help to redistribute unpaid as well as paid time – for example by making more jobs available for the unemployed and giving men more time to look after their children.
There’s nothing natural or inevitable about our nine-to-five, five-day week. It’s just a relic of the industrial revolution. It can be changed. When the state of Utah in the US introduced a four-day week for state employees (without reduced hours, but giving everyone a three-day weekend), more than half said they were more productive and three-quarters said they preferred the new arrangements. The State saved $4.1 million through reduced absenteeism and overtime and $1.4 million through reduced travel in state-owned vehicles; it reduced carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons, other greenhouse gases by 8,000 tons and petrol consumption by 744,000 gallons. 82 per cent of employees said they wanted the one-year experiment to continue.
We could get off the consumer treadmill and leave a smaller footprint on the earth. We could spend less on energy-intensive ‘convenience’ items designed to save us time – from processed foods and household gadgets to cars and airline tickets. We’d have more time to care for friends and family, and to look after our own health. We could leave employment and claim our pensions later, with a much gentler transition to retirement. We’d have more time to keep learning and take part in local activities. We might begin to reassess how we value different kinds of work, regardless of whether or how it is paid. We might give a higher rating to relationships, pastimes and places that absorb less of our money and more of our time.
There could be benefits for business too, with more women in paid employment, more men leading rounded, balanced lives, less workplace stress and greater productivity hour for hour. The driving force towards a prosperous economy would no longer be credit-fuelled consumerism, which has proved so destructive, but financial stability and good work distributed fairly across the population.
None of this will be easy to achieve. A lot of people will have to adjust to earning a lot less, but this has to be seen as part of a bigger transition, over a decade or more, that will involve a radical shift in values and expectations. . Everything depends on having the right measures in place to ensure that work is fairly distributed, that everyone has enough to live on, that employers are encouraged to take on more staff, and that public attitudes change to support less materialist lifestyles and a revaluation of paid and unpaid time. These are explored in more detail in our report, 21 Hours.
Social norms that seem to be firmly fixed can sometimes change quite suddenly. Take, for example, attitudes towards slavery and votes for women, wearing seatbelts and crash helmets, not smoking in bars and restaurants. The weight of public opinion can swing from antipathy to routine acceptance, usually when there’s a combination of new evidence, changing conditions, a sense of crisis and a strong campaign. This proposal for a 21-hour working week is intended as a provocation, to stimulate debate and ideas. It also reflects an urgent need to build a sustainable future. We already have strong supporting evidence, changing conditions that demand a fresh approach and a profound sense of crisis. The campaign starts here.
21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century by Anna Coote, Andrew Simms and Jane Franklin was published on Saturday 13 February 2010.
The piece usefully reflects on the “intuitive” sense that money doesn’t buy happiness, an intuition reflected in the findings of well-being research. Even so, it doesn’t get the interpretation of the Index quite right. It says:
“the United States ranks as low as most of sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, consuming more than our share of resources doesn’t make us happier, despite the fact that we live almost twice as long than those in sub-Saharan Africa who consume very little.”
This suggest that life satisfaction scores (how the HPI measures happiness) in the US are as low as in sub-Sarahan Africa. They aren’t. But what the HPI does show is that Americans are producing fewer units of well-being per units of resources consumed than countries like Malawi and Congo. Which is a sobering thought indeed for the champions of consumption who constitute the vast majority of Davos participants.
What solution do primary school children propose for the high energy use involved in floodlighting football matches? Simple – stop playing matches at night. Of course, such a change would require greater working flexibility, so that typical working hours don’t get in the way of spectators getting to the match, but we needn’t expect primary school children to get into these details…
Working with three local authorities in Wales (Caerphilly, Torfaen and Carmarthenshire), nef is developing a website for children on how to live good lives that don’t cost the Earth. So as to get a better picture of what makes children happy, Jody Aked and I have been running workshops with children about happiness and sustainability. We’ve discovered a quiet revolution. In schools around the country, children are getting the environmental issues in a way that makes Swampy look like Susan Palin. They spout facts about recycling, they name and shame energy-guzzling teachers, and – ok – she said carbon ninoxide instead of carbon monoxide, but I still think knowing about either is pretty impressive for a 9 year old.
And do they get the message about well-being? Do they believe that you can have a good life without costing the Earth. Here the message is a bit more mixed. Yes, some children highlighted receiving an iPod or playing on their Playstation as the last moment they felt ‘on top of the world’. But many mentioned scoring goals, acting in a play, or simply the snow. And when we asked them to give their top tip for feeling happier whilst saving the planet, they had no difficulty – many bigged up turning off the telly, and doing sport. But only during the day of course.
American author Barbara Ehrenreich has been all over the British media this week as she pays a flying visit to the UK to promote her latest book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. And aside from a slight concern about her carbon footprint, I’m happy that she made it. My enthusiasm for Ehrenreich’s attack on positivity might seem odd given nef’s long-standing interest in well-being, but, in fact, Smile or Die does a lot to illustrate the problems with shallow, individualistic conceptions of happiness.
In her book, Ehrenreich argues that the ideology of positive thinking peddled by self-help gurus like Deepak Chopra or Steven Covey tells people that negative feelings ought to be suppressed and that remaining positive will inevitably bring success. This she argues, is a pernicious con trick– all our lives include problems and it’s natural and healthy to respond to these with sadness and anger.
In a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts earlier this week, Ehrenreich went further, looking at the relationship between positive thinking and inequality. By telling us that success comes from psychological strength, not from privilege, inherited wealth or even pure luck, positive thinking encourages us to blame ourselves, rather than social factors, for the problems that we experience. By telling us that we all get what we deserve, these ideas serve a profound role in convincing us to accept the huge, destructive inequalities that we see in modern, western societies.
In fact, in nef’s work to identify what real well-being means, we are keenly aware of the impact of society on individuals. While the social roots of material factors like the place where you work, to the community where you live, or your physical health are clear, even the more ‘internal’ factors, such as resilience and individual aspirations and expectations, which also shape our experience, are ultimately formed by societal factors such as schooling and the influence of media. Achieving greater well-being for all means creating a society where we all have access to the things we need. Strong communities, meaningful jobs, freedom from material poverty, a culture which supports genuine psychological health, not empty positivity: these are the factors that build real well-being.
And if we’re going to achieve these things, negative emotions might be just what we need. After all, if we really want to build a fairer, better society, free from the spectres of poverty, despair and social isolation, I can’t think of a better way to start than getting angry.