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Week 24: 19 February 2012

Dr. Sam Thompson

Psychologist and policy analyst specialising in wellbeing and happiness

Starting from Nowhere

In 1968 Senator Robert (“Bobby”) Kennedy made a powerful and eloquent campaign speech at the University of Kansas. Kennedy’s target was how the US gauged its own and other nations’ success and standing in the world. In particular, he decried the widespread tendency to focus attention on Gross National Product, which “measures everything … except that which makes life worthwhile”. Kennedy wasn’t the first person to make this argument – Simon Kuznets, the economist who first developed the methodology for calculating GNP, said “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” But Kennedy’s oration is striking, even now, for its willingness to tackle orthodoxy head-on and to envision a completely different way of doing things. It’s well worth a watch.

Senator Robert Kennedy giving his 1968 GNP Speech at the University of Kansas

A few years later, something interesting happened in Bhutan, a tiny nation of about 700,000 people perched high in the Himalayas and virtually inaccessible (even now, fewer than 10 pilots are qualified to make the knuckle-whitening descent into Paro airport). At the time, Bhutan was one of the world’s dwindling number of absolute monarchies. Shortly after taking the throne in 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that the country’s national policy would no longer focus Gross National Product; instead, the guiding objective for the nation would be to increase Gross National Happiness. True to his word, the King established the Centre for Bhutan Studies, which over the years has developed a sophisticated set of methodologies for measuring GNH.

Taktsang Palphug Monastery Bhutan (also known as The Tiger's Nest)

Until fairly recently it might have been easy to dismiss Kennedy’s speech as utopian dreaming and the Bhutanese policy as an eccentric publicity stunt. But the twin ideas – that we need new indicators of national progress, and that measuring happiness might be a viable approach – have become part of mainstream debate. There are a multitude of books, academic papers and think-tank reports arguing both for and against. Not only that but, as some Nowherians based in the UK might know, in November 2010 David Cameron asked the Office of National Statistics to develop a new set of national wellbeing indicators. This the ONS have duly done, following a significant consultation exercise. You can have a look at the questions they came up with here, and make up your own mind about how successful they have been.

I’ve no idea if the King of Bhutan knew about Bobby Kennedy’s speech; Kennedy himself was assassinated shortly after making it, still several years before the King took the throne. But without the words and actions of either of them, or a host of other bold and imaginative thinkers, it is hard to think that recent policy developments like the ONS initiative – relatively incremental and cautious as they are – would have been possible at all. These contributions widened what political scientists sometimes refer to as the Overton Window, namely the range of ideas that are in public circulation and therefore the space within which policy-makers can move.

What does all this have to do with Nowhereisland? Well, I’ll try to make the connection via an old joke that you’ll probably have heard in one form or another. The version I know goes like this:

A young traveller is wandering down a lane somewhere deep in the Irish countryside.

He comes across an old local man, leaning on a gatepost. “Excuse me, sir”, he asks, “Could you tell me the way to Dublin?”

The old man says nothing, only staring into the middle distance and taking a contemplative suck on his pipe. “Well”, he says eventually, “if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here”.

Leaving aside the creaking national stereotype, clearly the joke works to the extent that we laugh at the silly old man. Of course we have to “start from here”. What else could we do?

Well, after working in the policy world on and off for several years, I’ve come to think of the old Irishman as making a rather subtle and important point. When a bold new idea – like, for instance, ditching GNP and measuring happiness instead – is put forward, the answer often runs along similar lines: Great! But, well, we can only start from where we are. And from here, it’s a long and complicated journey to get over there. So hadn’t we better be a bit less ambitious?

Well, Nowhereisland is different. When we think about how our new nation could be constituted we are, metaphorically, starting from Nowhere. The central conceit of the project is that we are building a new nation from scratch, taking all the lessons that we have learned from history but – and this is the crucial bit – without being constrained by history. To put it another way, Nowhereisland gives us imaginative licence to explore radical new ways of living and being, without bumping up against the “well, I wouldn’t start from here” objection that can be so stifling to new ideas.

So as the Nowhereisland project develops, let’s embrace the opportunity to think freely about how things could be different. Even though the process of real-world change is often slow and painstaking, we need big ideas to point the way and create the space for movement.

As we’ve recently begun the exciting work of developing the Nowhereisland constitution, I’ll take the opportunity to throw a few propositions into the discussion, both on the issues of measuring national success and specifically on happiness.

When people think about measurement, especially in complex areas such as national success and progress, the discussion tends quickly to get bogged-down in technical issues and concerns over feasibility (which is, in itself, a manifestation of the “well, I wouldn’t start from here” objection). But good measurement – of anything – depends on firstly identifying what is important and what is not. There’s no point measuring for the sake of measuring: we want to measure what matters.

So rather than make detailed technical suggestions about survey tools, statistical models and all the rest, here are three propositions about what matters in Nowhereisland. Maybe these, or others, could underpin an approach to measuring the success of Nowhereisland in years to come.

  • Nowhereians recognise that all human activity is a subset of, and dependent on the health of, the wider ecosystem.
  • Nowhereians recognise that economic performance is a means, not an end.
  • Nowhereians always strive to collaborate, not compete, with other people and with other nations.
  • The success of Nowhereisland will be defined in terms of wellbeing; not just of Nowhereians, but of everyone.
  • In Nowhereisland, being is more important than having. Our goal is wealth of experience, not wealth of possessions.

What about happiness? Well, for me this is easy…. A few years ago, some colleagues and I were asked to distil the findings from a very wide-ranging, government-led science review (the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, since you ask) into a set of simple, evidence-based messages about what leads to mental health and happiness. What we came up with was the Five Ways to Wellbeing:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Keep Learning
  • Take Notice
  • Give

One way to think about the Five Ways to Wellbeing is as DIY tips. Certainly the evidence suggests that if you decided to spend more of your time connecting with people, learning new things, being physically active and so on, you’d likely end up feeling happier.

Five Ways to Wellbeing produced by nef (New Economics Foundation), 2008

But the Five Ways to Wellbeing can also be used as a kind of diagnostic tool to help us understand the conditions that support happiness. To see what I mean, here is a comment made by a journalist at The Guardian, shortly after the Five Ways to Wellbeing were launched. In an article describing her experience of spending a day doing “Five Ways” activities, she concluded:

"So how do I feel at the end of the day? I feel better. If I – and almost more importantly, all my friends and family – could find the time and inclination to do it all every day I'm sure I would feel better still. But it remains for all but a fortunate few – whom I suspect are quite happy enough already – essentially unworkable advice. You might as well instruct the nation to live in the 1950s: surely the last time there was any hope of living this way en masse."

Although evidently written with tongue slightly in cheek, there is an important idea here. The implication is that the kinds of activities implied by the Five Ways to Wellbeing may be, in effect, crowded-out by the pressures of modern life. Whilst people would like to do more connecting, being active, taking notice, learning and giving, they are prevented from doing so not because of a lack of motivation, but by a kind of lifestyle “lock-in” in the form of time, financial and other commitments that mitigate against doing those activities that research would suggest are most beneficial to happiness. If that’s the case – and, in my view, there’s a lot of truth in it – what an odd situation to find ourselves in!

To be clear, I’m very sceptical about the idea that government, or anybody else, should be in the business of trying to make people happy. But it seems to me that if we wanted to give people the best chance of finding happiness, the kind of social and economic systems we might design would look rather different from the ones we have now. Maybe, if we wanted a truly happy world, we wouldn’t start from where we are now. Fortunately, we have Nowhereisland and so we don’t have to!

So here’s a final proposition for the constitution:

  • Nowhereisland is a place where people can Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give.
Dr. Sam Thompson

Sam is a psychologist and policy analyst specialising in wellbeing, happiness and public mental health. He has worked with national and local government, the NHS, businesses and third sector organisations to explore how policy and practice could be different if promoting psychological wellbeing was a central goal. Sam is currently Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of East London.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

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