The well-being or ‘happiness’ push has been rolling for more than a decade now. Though there were plenty of other voices like Bruno Frey, I date its take-off from around the turn of the 21st century when Richard Layard started cranking up the issue and invoking the ghost of Bentham. [1. Google identifies 2,590 articles containing the expression “happiness economics” of which around 100 were published before 2000 with the number growing strongly in each five year interval I’ve checked.] This new development shared with many other new departures in economics the rediscovery of things that were relatively commonsensical but nevertheless had been eclipsed by neoclassical formalism. [2. Thus, just as new or ‘strategic’ trade theory and ‘new’ development theory rediscovered things about the economy that had been well known and thought about until their eclipse by the modelling orthodoxies of the 1960s on, so the new focus on wellbeing rediscovered some propositions that had been commonplace foundations of economics at the turn of the previous century.]
I recall reading Layard at the time and thinking that I’d been saying the same kind of thing for a long time[3. As had he.] – that money was an input with the output being some notion of wellbeing, that like all other commodities there were diminishing marginal returns to money [4. An extra dollar in the hands of a poor person meets more urgent needs (and so contributes more to net wellbeing whatever that means) than an extra dollar in the hands of a wealthy person.] Still, as I argued in a presentation on the subject of wellbeing and the HALE last Friday (slides here at least for a while) at a conference commemorating Paul Frijters contributions to Australian economics (and UQ hounding him out of the place for his trouble – File under “never let a good deed go unpunished”), it’s surprising how little the new focus has yielded in strong new policy insights and priorities.
What’s typically happened, as happened with the other disciplinary departures I mentioned above, is that the new lenses that these new sub-disciplines generated were then trained on all the same old chestnuts. So new trade and development economics were trained on the old ‘free markets versus government intervention’ debate. Likewise, Layard used a wellbeing framework to address questions like the relation between income and happiness (the so-called Easterlin Paradox) and the wellbeing impact of inequality. Of course, that’s all fine and dandy, but you’d think that a new focus might produce new things to think about, not just slightly new ways to think about old things.
As an aside, by coincidence, the period during which wellbeing has risen to prominence in the academy also coincides with Australia sliding down the league ladder from preeminent neoliberal reformer to also-ran. Since our last successful major economic reform – in 2001 – I can think of at least three areas in which the UK has forged a path well ahead of our own. The first is information policy where the UK has opened up a big lead in open data policy know-how and is moving to second generation issues like personal information management. The second is social innovation where David Cameron put a lot of money into Big Society Capital and lots of things have been happening – though very little that I know of has been really done on a national scale.
And the UK government now explicitly targets well-being as an outcome of policy. This wasn’t just nice words. It was championed by the former most senior bureaucrat – Gus O’Donnell (or GOD as he’s known) both towards the end of his tenure as Cabinet Secretary and in his life after that appointment. The UK has also set up a ‘what works’ centre on wellbeing – which I think was initially chaired by GOD who is now the Patron. [5. What works’ centres are British institutions which seek to translate the state of the art in various fields into actionable conclusions for practitioners. You’d think that such services might be provided by academia, but you’d be wrong.]
Still, progress has been slow.
At least on a quick perusal, the What Works Wellbeing website shows fairly slim pickings with the recent item on their blog being the wellbeing effects of singing. So the wellbeing push has generated a huge literature for academics. [6. Google Scholar had the number of articles with ‘happiness economics” in the literature growing from 24 in the last five years of the 1990s, to 170 the next five years, around 650 the next five years and 1,700 in the five years to 2015.]You’d think there’d be lots of low hanging fruit to pick by now. But it doesn’t seem to be so. You’d think the aim would be to produce a body of knowledge that could contribute to cost curves a little like the one below – on greenhouse gas abatement.[7. Of course such cost curves themselves are a huge simplification, and improving wellbeing is a more ccontext-dependent undertaking than reducing carbon emissions, but you get the idea.]
Alas, that’s not how the academic literature works or how policy makers do policy – even, it seems, when governments mandate that wellbeing be made an important theme of policy. To begin work on such a cost curve, one might begin by trawling through the cohorts of people we know have low self-reported wellbeing. We know that’s true of carers and people with mental illness. One could then ask where the low hanging fruit was – where we’re most confident of highly cost-effective initiatives. I have little doubt that properly considered, there are a host of ‘no-regrets’ measures here – i.e. measures that would pay for themselves economically as well as directly boosting well-being.
A good candidate would be the old Home and Community Care (HACC) scheme which was a world leading Australian policy innovation that sought to delay people’s admission to nursing homes by giving them help in their homes. It reduced net outlays by reducing the burden on nursing homes and it increased wellbeing markedly (It certainly did for my late Mum). I expect initiatives like Weavers will do the same – at even lower cost than HACC. Could one do the same in mental illness? I suspect in those areas most susceptible to drug treatments the answers is ‘yes’, but there would be other low hanging fruit – as well, no doubt as difficult cases.
There’s also multi-generational disadvantage. Something like a half of all people who have their children removed for abuse or neglect were removed from their own parents for the same reason. It seems we have moderately successful means of intervening to stop the intergenerational cycle [7. Programs like Family by Family and Newpin both look pretty successful.]and while they’re not that cheap, the wellbeing benefits would be substantial in addition to the economic benefits which, if accounted for over any substantial period should greatly exceed the economic costs of such programs.
Here are some other areas off the top of my head. As I understand it, around 10% of the student population has some degree of dyslexia. Some of those people, particularly the milder cases can be helped very substantially just by schools paying more attention to teaching for different cognitive styles (and I suspect a peer-to-peer mentoring program could also be devised to great effect). Loneliness is another area which has gained prominence in the UK as a policy issue – particularly, but not exclusively regarding the elderly – and it’s easy to imagine one could make substantial inroads into the problem at very modest cost – together with lots of positive social and economic spinoffs.
But in the literature – either at the heights of the academy or even the ‘grey literature’ of policy discussion – this kind of thing is pretty thin on the ground. Indeed, though I presume there are others, this is the only article of its kind I can find, and even here it’s notable that the focus is on developing frameworks for generating lists of interventions rather than just getting going listing high-quality projects to which frameworks can be applied in due course when one finds the need and the time to prioritise. It’s been over a decade of full on wellbeing studies now guys, and we’ve got surprisingly little to show for it both within the academy and in policy.