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It isn’t the economy, Stupid

7 Jun

Richard LayardAccording to Richard Layard, interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of weeks ago (24 May), Bill Clinton was wrong. The economy isn’t what matters most to people when they vote. ‘We know, going back to 1970, what determines why governments get elected all over the world,’ Layard said. ‘People are satisfied with their lives for reasons other than the economy.’

I can’t imagine why I haven’t written about Layard before in this blog. An emeritus professor of economics at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, and also a member of the House of Lords, he was one of the first people in the UK to discuss the policy implications of research into happiness. In his bio on the CEP website we’re told that, ‘Since the 1970s he has urged fellow economists to return to the 18th and 19th century idea that public policy should maximise a social welfare function depending on the distribution of happiness’ (http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/staff/person.asp?id=970). Layard’s 2005 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science has been translated into twenty languages, and he’s one of the co-editors of the UN’s World Happiness Reports (this blog, 18 April ).

Layard believes that relative income has a significant effect on happiness levels, but he doesn’t regard this as the most crucial factor when people are making up their minds how to vote. Mental and physical health, followed by relationships at home, at work and in the community, are what people care about most. After that they begin to think about their income. A government is under a moral obligation to give people what matters to them, he told the Today interviewer – and it’s also in the government’s own interests to do this, as it will help it to get re-elected.

‘Mental health should be a top priority when it comes to NHS spending,’ Layard said. He wants an extra £4 billion to be spent on it, in addition to what’s currently being promised in the NHS spending review. This represents a 6% increase in real terms over the next five years; it would help break the logjam whereby mental health always lags way behind physical health in NHS spending plans. He also thinks that there should be a separate budget for mental health within the overall NHS budget.

In line with this thinking, Layard would like to see much more emphasis placed on mental health issues in schools. In South Australia, he told us, there are teachers who are specially trained to give classes in life skills, and that’s something we need in the UK as well. Plus an awareness of well-being should be built into training courses for all of our teachers.

Apprenticeships and increased spending on further education are among the items which Layard supports for the members of the post-school generation who are not going on to university: ‘they need to see a clear path ahead of them in life.’ And for all of us social connections are of course enormously  important. ‘Loneliness is a huge problem nowadays’, he said; and so the UK government needs to restore the cuts to youth clubs, and to centres for children and old people.

None of this is prohibitively expensive, Layard would argue. It’s more a question of governments getting their priorities right. And although all of these measures would undoubtedly cost money, I absolutely take his point that when it comes to cultivating well-being we need to concentrate more on social spending and less on enhancing personal incomes. The consistent top ranking of Scandinavian countries in the world happiness statistics, if nothing else, hammers home this point.

Layard is convinced that people will vote for governments which follow the course he’s recommending, and give people what matters to them. I can only hope – fervently – that he’s right about this.

 

 

Finland, Brexit, Trump … and the joys of reading

18 Apr

woman-reading-at-a-dressing-table-interieur-nice-1919In the UN’s World Happiness Report for 2019, published in March, Finland heads the field for the second year running. The UK has risen five places, from 19th to 15th – once again contradicting the view that no sane person can possibly be happy while contemplating Brexit. And the US has dropped from 18th to 19th, validating the equally entrenched conviction that Americans are bound to be getting more miserable under Donald Trump. 

The happiness report bases its rankings on six variables: income and GDP per capita; the freedom to make life choices; trust in government and perceptions of corruption; healthy life expectancy; social support; and generosity. As in previous years, the last 50 places in the list of 156 nations are mostly occupied by African and Asian countries. South Sudan, devastated by years of civil war, is at the bottom. Yemen, equally afflicted, is at 151. Eastern Europe is represented by Albania, at 107, and Ukraine, at 133. And the one South American country to appear in the last 50 is of course strife-torn Venezuela, at 108.

As usual Scandinavian countries dominate the top ten. Denmark is 2nd, Norway 3rd, and Iceland 4th. Ireland and Germany are just below the UK, at 16 and 17. And the two countries which always surprise us by being apparently less happy than Britain are still ranked lower: France is at 24 and Italy at 36. 

(For the full list, see https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/changing-world-happiness/). 

I’ve already rejected the notion  (this blog, 9 June 2018) that climate considerations are the mainspring of Scandinavian happiness. It still seems to me much more likely that relative prosperity and economic equality – involving high taxes and adequate safety nets provided by the state – are the key to 21st century happiness. But as Rachel Kelly points out in The Observer (24 March) money isn’t everything. The report also recognises that freedom, generosity, and support from social networks all make a difference. 

This may give rise to a belief in the possibility of personal change. Kelly is sure that individual happiness levels aren’t fixed. Her own experience of combating major depressive episodes has convinced her that we all have an ability to cultivate happiness.  She doesn’t want to rule out medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, the NHS’s main approaches to the treatment of mental illness. These do have a part to play, she says. But she also thinks that a sense of one’s own agency is very important. 

‘I have found that while thinking often makes me sad, doing rarely does. A sense of my own autonomy was essential to getting better. .. Simple daily acts such as paying proper attention when someone talks to you can transform how generous we are to others – and how happy we feel. Equally, there is much that we can do to increase our sense of social support: even light-touch socialising can boost our mood.’

Kelly’s strategies for remaining calm and well include bibliotherapy – the use of planned reading programmes to help people overcome anxiety and emotional disorders. This technique, I learn, has been employed in hospitals since the early years of the twentieth century.  It can be deeply serious. According to The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (https://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_b.aspx), Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.’ 

For most of us, however, it may be enough just to pick up a book when we’re feeling sad or stressed, and let our engagement with a world beyond our own lead us away from anguish. Personally I find it a very effective way of  soothing the mind. And who knows? – it may even help us to cope a bit better with Brexit. 

For earlier posts on Finland and on Brexit, see 9 June 2018; and 13 and 12 January 2019, 10 October 2018, and 4 October, 2017. 

 

 

 

 

Scandinavian happiness: never mind the cold, feel the equality

9 Jun

Over the last year there’s been a jostling for Finland winter 2position among the front-runners in the international happiness stakes. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, the first four places are still occupied by Scandinavian countries. But Finland has edged into the lead, pushing Norway – last year’s winner – into second place. The third slot goes to Denmark, while Iceland is fourth. Elsewhere, the US has slipped to number 18, while the position of the UK remains unchanged at 19, behind Australia (10) and Germany (15), but ahead of France (23), Italy (47), and Greece (79).

The bottom of the table is still dominated by Asian and African countries. They occupy all but four of the last 50 places, out of a total of 156, joined only by Albania, Ukraine, Georgia and Haiti. Syria, unsurprisingly, comes in at no.150, while India is at 133. China, at 79, and Pakistan, at 80, seem to be doing much better than their democratic neighbour.

Overall, these figures suggest that there may be something very first world about the values being tested in happiness surveys; or alternatively – and more straightforwardly – that a certain level of material comfort is vital for happiness.  The latter conclusion seems plausible. The key variables being examined in the report, compiled by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, are income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. The first three, at least, are probably not compatible with high levels of poverty.

But there again, money isn’t everything. Gross Domestic Product per capita in Finland is lower than in other Scandinavian countries, and much lower than that of the US. And Finland has only recently emerged from a 10-year economic depression, linked to the collapse of its signature company Nokia and made worse by the 2008 financial crisis.

Things have picked up recently, thanks to the success of other tech companies such as the games studio Supercell. And Nokia has by no means disappeared: it’s still Finland’s largest employer, followed by escalator manufacturer Kone. The economy is in reasonable shape, then; but it hasn’t recovered from the 2008 debacle as quickly as the UK and US economies (see The Observer 18 March, Business Leader). So why are the Finns apparently much happier than the Brits and Americans?

It’s the equality, most commentators would argue. Finland has a state education system that caters for all its children without the need for selective or private schooling. The health service and welfare programme remain for the time being universal. And taxes are seen in Finland as an investment in quality of life, not as a crime against humanity.

The picture isn’t completely rosy, however. As in other countries, the economic depression in Finland saw a rise in support for far-right views. The party which dubs itself True Finns has recently elected an anti-immigrant hardliner as its leader. And the country has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in Europe, which has prompted the conservatives who control the coalition government to embark on a series of healthcare cuts. In the future some Finns may feel the need to resort to private medicine.  And this may mean that Finland doesn’t retain its position at the top of the happiness table.

But at the moment Finland doesn’t just have the happiest population in the world, it also has the happiest immigrants. For the first time the UN report examined the happiness levels of immigrants in each country, and Finland got the top score here as well. In fact, the ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also occupied ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Which suggests that happiness isn’t bound up with our genetic and cultural inheritance, but rather with the quality of life we enjoy in the country where we’re living.

Or maybe it’s the cold. Some pundits have suggested that Scandinavians always do well in happiness surveys because their climate has made them more resilient and more neighbourly. To combat harsh conditions they’re forced to come together and help each other. This spirit of co-operation feeds into the national psyche and so into state policies.

I’m inclined to think that such climatic determinism is nonsense. Sunshine rather than snow is usually credited with being the fount of all happiness, and speaking for myself I know that my mood lightens instantaneously when the sun comes out. But it’s clearly not crucial. Italy, which for a lot of British people is the very image of a carefree sun-kissed nation, always comes low down among European countries in the happiness tables. Many of the Italians I talk to personally moan a lot about their lives and their prospects. Not so the Finns, Danes and Norwegians. It could be the cold that makes them upbeat, I suppose – but it seems much more likely that equality is the really important factor when it comes to Scandinavian happiness.