Five Big Ideas To Make The World A Happier Place
Illustration by Mr Janne Iivonen
What’s it all about? That is the question posed by Sir Michael Caine at the end of the 1966 film Alfie, as well as by many of us recently. Not a bob or two, as Sir Michael’s self-serving cockney Casanova acknowledges. Not even GDP, which Mr Bobby Kennedy once said “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Recent events have forced many of us to reconsider our priorities, physical health in particular. But we’re also talking more about mental health and the strains upon it, not least those caused by work and finances. We’re maybe even questioning whether money really should make the world go round or restrict access to basic needs people can’t afford to live without.
The past year has shown that sweeping change can happen, and swiftly. Perhaps, then, we should create a new “new normal” that reframes our goals and perception of happiness, that’s more peaceful and healthier than the old normal. MR PORTER has canvassed experts for ambitious but practical ideas to reshape society around what it – and we – should be all about.
Use wellbeing data to inform government spending…
…Then place resources “into those areas that are actually contributing most to wellbeing”, says Mr Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. It sounds obvious, but wealth doesn’t always convert to wellbeing, which is stagnating or declining around the world despite economic growth. The institute has devised its own metric, Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years (WALY), a clever KPI that combines both costs and benefits “to enable value comparisons across domains”.
WALY’s estimation of the burden of 16 diseases across 28 European countries determined that depression and anxiety disorders take a heavier toll than almost any other illness. Making psychological help more accessible via, say, teletherapy (video conferencing, calling, even texting with professionals) would therefore be a smart investment. Similarly, the WALY cost of air pollution in Europe’s most choked cities rivals that of serious diseases. Fewer vehicles and more public transport, cycling and walking should be mission critical.
Moving away from a blinkered focus on GDP and growth, itself a source of unhappiness and unwellness, is, says Ms Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute in Florida, “one of the most important developments in government – ever”. She cites (predominantly female) examples of progressive leadership, such as New Zealand prime minister Ms Jacinda Ardern, who in 2019 announced the world’s first wellbeing budget. Including child poverty figures as standard, the budget puts the emphasis on ministers to spell out how any proposals will pay off for the people.
Rethink our approach to work
Toxic cultures, organisational unfairness, top-down management styles and other drivers of workplace stress count for about a quarter of depression and anxiety symptoms, according to Dr Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne and author of The Other Side Of Happiness. “Organisations addressing these factors are not only doing their bottom line a favour, but building a healthier and happier world,” he says.
In 2019, the World Health Organization expanded its definition of burnout in the International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon” linked to chronic workplace stress. The pandemic has only added fuel to the fire, says McGroarty, with one study showing the now-remote working day extended by 48 minutes and breaks for chewing the fat with colleagues or eating lunch swallowed up. With instant messaging apps such as Slack, as well as video conferencing tools such as Zoom, on the rise, an “always on” approach is becoming commonplace, and the boundaries between office hours and home life are increasingly blurred. “This is not going to be solved by employers subscribing you to a meditation app,” McGroarty adds.
Canada limits the number of hours employees can work per day and week, with overtime pay requirements, and has implemented policies such as full-day kindergarten to foster flexible working. New Zealand’s Ardern and Scotland’s first minister, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, are among the prominent lobbyists for a four-day working week, which has been proved to improve employee wellbeing and, counterintuitively, productivity.
Make society more equal
Not only in terms of income, but health and education, according to Wiking. He notes people are social beings and large perceived differences can lead to distrust, reduced contact and isolation, or trigger status competition. On a more transactional level, income restricts access to healthcare, recreational facilities and nutritious food, says McGroarty.
The pandemic has highlighted high incidences of immunity-compromising metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, in black, Asian, minority ethnic and low-income communities as well as “food deserts”, where fresh produce is scarce and junk food abundant. Startups such as the LA meal subscription service Everytable, which sells healthy food at fast-food prices in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, subsidised by higher costs in wealthier ones, try to redress the dietary imbalance. Education technology, or ed tech, which encompasses everything from classroom tablets to online courses and lecture-recording, note-taking robots, can remove barriers to learning such as geography, scheduling and cost. The Global Wellness Institute also predicts growth in vocational training to help young people enter the job market and older ones update their skills.
A Universal Basic Income is no longer as impossibly utopian as it seemed pre-pandemic, or when Dr Martin Luther King Jr campaigned for it in the 1960s. Conservative and Republican governments have given out furlough payments and stimulus cheques, while some who considered welfare a free ride for the work-shy may, with experience, have revised their opinion.
Accept others (and ourselves)
“There is comfort in closing off an opposing perspective,” says Professor Paul Dolan, behavioural scientist at the London School of Economics and author of Happy Ever After. “But take a deep breath and accept that others see the world differently.” Issues are worth talking about, rather than insulting or ignoring those who disagree. In which case, we recommend staying off Twitter. Social capital, the network of relationships through which society functions, is correlated with individual and societal wellbeing. But, says Prof Dolan, “Our world is becoming increasingly polarised.” Social media is part of the problem, but could be part of the solution by diminishing influencers. The University of Pennsylvania found that their outsized sway amps up partisanship, whereas more egalitarian networks can dial down bias by exposing users to new ideas and opinions based on the quality thereof, rather than who’s espousing them.
Our “empathy crisis” is, says McGroarty, symbolised by some refusing to wear masks. Thankfully, empathy can be taught, through specialised lessons, as in Danish preschools; sport (non-profit PeacePlayers has helped conflict from the Middle East to Northern Ireland with basketball); virtual reality, used by Stanford researchers to increase compassion for homeless people and hailed as a potential police training tool; and reading fiction. To understand our behaviour, and change it, we have to accept who we are. “Pressure to be happy will be lifted and you’ll be happier as a result,” says Prof Dolan. “If you want to change a behaviour, set realistic expectations and accept that you might not change as much as you’d like.” Therapy can help with self-esteem.
Prioritise social connection
Predating and exacerbated by Covid, the loneliness epidemic speaks to the way our society is structured, states Dr Bastian, who prescribes looking anew at a range of values and practices, “using loneliness as a lens” to distinguish the risk factors for mental illness from those that promote wellbeing. One study showed social isolation is deadlier than obesity, inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
On a cheerier note, the pandemic has precipitated volunteering and community outreach, voice and video calls to family and friends instead of cursory texts, doorstep conversations and singalongs with neighbours. McGroarty’s action points on loneliness include screening by medical professionals, funding into research on its causes, effects and cures, awareness campaigns and “less screen time, more people time”. Reducing stigmas against nationality, race, gender, sexuality and age would, says Wiking, remove barriers to people connecting. The “cornerstone of a good life”, relationships should be taught every year in schools to developing children, says Ms Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of This Too Shall Pass. “They should receive education on how to communicate, be self-aware, manage emotions and fight well.”
City streets shut to allow inhabitants to walk, run and cycle safely during Covid-19 should stay that way, says McGroarty. And empty shops are “an opportunity to reimagine our cities and suburbs around community, rather than consumerism”.