24 October 2011

Warning: Academic Content!

I recently came across this article in the New Left Review: The Political Economy of Unhappiness, by William Davies. So, yes, it is quite academic and intellectual and the writing style isn't exactly light-leisure-reading. That said, it is a relatively easy read and makes some really interesting points. Bare with me. You'll like this, I promise (maybe).

In a very basic summary, the premise for this article is that physical and mental health (or "wellbeing" as Davies says) are economic resources. Why? Well, for starters the annual cost of health related absence from work in the UK is £100 billion. That's a lot of money and a HUGE concern to employers, economists, and policy-makers. If you're sick you can't go to work, and this gives your health an economic value.

Davies discusses a recent shift in the way we understand health and recovery. Whereas the traditional prescription for most illnesses is to rest and let your body recover, research is now showing that going back to work may actually help recovery.
"...Even where work is primarily physical, medical and economic orthodoxy had underestimated the importance of psychological factors in determining health and productivity. Being at work has the psychological effect of making people believe themselves to be well, which in turn has a positive effect on their physical wellbeing."
Essentially, we are likely to recover from illness faster and better at work: Work = Happiness = Health.

Now here is where it gets interesting. As labour has become more immaterial (we're not putting machines together in factories, we're now putting ideas together in conference rooms), illness has become more immaterial too. We don't suffer from fever and runny noses as much as we suffer from depression and anxiety. Look at this graph; it shows the increasing number of sick days taken on account of mental ailments. 40% of all sick leave in 2007!

Ok, back to the economics! So more and more people are missing work because they are depressed and this is costing employers and costing the government. So now it is a lot easier to get psychological treatment through the NHS in the form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (apparently CBT tends to be controversial among psychologists but I lack the knowledge to comment on that). Simply put, the government is investing in your mental wellbeing so that you can go to work! In line with this, CBT has also become an important part of programmes for the unemployed.

You've probably noticed a little contradiction here. Work is meant to make us happy and healthy. So why are we increasingly skipping out on work because of unhappiness? Well, this may come as a shock to you, but work isn't the only thing that makes us happy. I know - mind boggling, right? Oh... you're not surprised? Ok then.

Studies repeatedly show that access to public goods makes people happy. Davies gives examples of this research technique that asks people to give a monetary value to social or public goods. For example, how much extra income would you need to maintain your current level of happiness if you, say, couldn't attend concerts? This particular public good happens to be valued at nine grand/year. Personally, I think this kind of methodology is pure genius! It is simply an extension of school-boy bets: "I'll give you £2 to eat a handful of dirt." "No way! I wont do it for less than £5!" Thus, the happiness value of not eating dirt is the equivalent of £5. It is so simple and so effective.

I may think it is great, but the results worry liberal economists. This kind of research ultimately shows that the private income needed to compensate for public goods is very, very high. This means that £1 spent on public goods generates much more happiness than £1 spent privately. The evidence shows that public spending makes us all happy and, therefore, makes us all more able to go to work, be productive, and boost the economy. Neo-classical economists (i.e. those currently making policy) don't like this because they like to argue that public spending is bad. But the evidence is there and they can't ignore it. But as Davies so rightly points out, they don't exactly shout about it:
The political ramifications of such a technique have to be carefully concealed by the neo-classical economists currently seeking to introduce it to policy-making. But, arguably, a spectre is haunting liberal economics.
You may find the whole idea of trying to value happiness/unhappiness a bit absurd. And I'd say that is a valid opinion to hold. But read this article and you'll see how Davies grapples with the ontology of happiness and unhappiness and looks at the historical relationship between capitalist markets and mental wellbeing. Then you'll begin to see why some people find it so very important to put a price on happiness.

OR, you could just go the Peanuts-route and simply accept that happiness is a warm blanket.
Happiness is a Warm Blanket :)


  1. This is interesting, thanks. BUT is Fig. 1 really because our illnesses have become more immaterial, or because it's now more OK to say that you're feeling depressed or anxious than it was in 1996? I'd like to see the numbers, rather than a percentage increase. But thats just me. Might also be good to know how it differs between sectors, that data must be available?

  2. Good point Daniel. I think you're right that it is now more "acceptable" to talk about mental health. There's also, of course, the argument that most of these sick days are illegitimate; people call in sick just because they don't feel like going to work. But if you ask me that is a reflection on overall happiness.
    This article doesn't talk about differences between sectors but there might well be some research on that... Let me know if you find anything!

  3. each person must have experienced it.good post.