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A Hedonist’s Charter

Money does not bring contentment. So how do you forge a politics where happiness is the priority?

Another miserable bank holiday. Britain, with the fewest national holidays, is the only EU country not to make employers pay out for bank holidays. Some 3 million will not be paid if they take the day off. It’s a small meanness, but it signifies much. As Britain fights to retain its unique opt-out from the 48-hour Working Time Directive, the CBI campaigns hard to keep it. It is, it says, “vital to preserve workforce flexibility”.

Flexibility is a poisoned word, more often an employer’s right to resist working rights than an employee’s right to work flexible hours. Nearly 4 million workers “agree” to work over 48 hours, and are often forced to sign a waiver.

But that’s what “keeps the UK competitive”, say employers. Indeed it is, and the EU should forbid it as unfair competition with more civilised countries who refuse to sweat their workforces. Is that the way Britain wants to live? Poll after poll says it’s not. A four-day week is most people’s dream. That aspiration is not on the political radar, yet politicians worry that people feel politics is irrelevant to their lives.

Mori has produced a new social survey – Life Satisfaction and Trust in Other People – exploring what makes people happiest. It confirms the overwhelming evidence from economists that income is not an important determinant for life satisfaction for most people. The poll shows that a doubled GDP over 30 years has made Britain not a jot happier. LSE Professor Richard Layard is one of the new economists turning to hedonics, after finding that growth alone does not progress happiness. In his lectures he showed that once people earn above £10,000, money doesn’t matter much. Mori confirms that it is how people feel about the pecking-order that affects their happiness. Overestimating how much happiness more money will buy, people climb on a hedonic treadmill going nowhere.

Mori, like the rest, finds education is a key determinant of happiness. A degree brings far more life satisfaction than the paltry financial rewards the government promised. It should have said: “A degree makes you happier.” So does being happily married/partnered. So does living in a place you don’t want to move out of and feeling safe in your surroundings. Joining groups, participating, volunteering, going to the theatre and retiring all score high on the hedonic scale. Trust in others comes with all this.

So how do you make people more satisfied?

Look to the Canadians, who have abandoned all measurements except one. Every public service there was told to raise public satisfaction by 10% – and they did. They focused on what people appreciate most: politeness, promptness, never being passed from one official to another. Waiting times for appointments mattered less than being treated fast and well.

Shifting public service targets to “satisfaction” is relatively easy. The hard task is changing beliefs about money.

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