Keeping Score

Happiness and the Politics of Envy

In an article entitled ‘Legislating for happiness’, Randeep Ramesh today argues that any decent public policy on well-being needs to understand that we are ’hardwired for envy’:

People measure their satisfaction by how well they do in relation to others, rather than on absolute levels of income. Success is not enough: we also want to do better than our peers”.

Ramesh makes this argument in the current context of fiscal austerity and the danger of ever wider disparities between the haves and the have-nots – a context designed to breed emotional discontent, regret and shame. He is right to make the connection – the shrinking levels of disposable income allied to the desperate cranking up of consumerism is a cruel mix, designed to magnify the difference between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

It is in this context that the term the politics of envy takes on a different meaning entirely to that popularised by the political right. Or at least the ‘right’ as we have come to define it – talk of happiness and relative income isn’t necessarily the preserve of the left anymore. It’s interesting how Ramesh makes his argument while providing a pat on the back for Lord Glasman, founder of Blue Labour and a man in danger of confusing himself as well as everyone else with his ideological twists and turns.

Still, they’re both onto something when emphasising the binding power of emotions in people’s lives. It’s a shame then that Ramesh finishes with the hokey argument that policy needs redesigning “on the basis of happiness – with the warmth of emotion suffusing a world left freezing by reason”. Finishing a decent polemic can be difficult at the best of times, but to lead us to the dead-end of the head vs. heart brigade is disappointing. The more logical conclusion to such an article would have been to identify the elusive nature of happiness – a statement that best describes an emotion always and forever tied to the successes and failures of others. Happiness comes from without – try legislating for that.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.