Bridget Grenville-Cleave, Felicia Huppert &
"Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?" -Barack Obama'
Why is politics important for wellbeing?
Regardless of where we live in the world, political organisations, including governments, and other institutions engaged in social and public policy, wield enormous influence over all aspects of our lives. Politics can be global and local, and both have far reaching effects on economic and tax systems, education, employment, health and welfare, crime, defence, and our environment. The choices to be made are complex and political decisions have wide-ranging consequences - both intentional and unintentional. This is strikingly seen in the way the world has been dealing with both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
In light of the critical importance of these political decisions, we need them to be made in an environment which lends itself to positive human values, nuanced thinking, mature debate, and new ideas, in which different parties work collaboratively. This is not the norm in many political systems. Agreeing on whether issues like poverty, crime, or security need to be tackled is one thing, but different political stances mean that there is often no agreement on what action to take. Whilst healthy disagreement can lead to better solutions, the open hostility that politicians and their supporters show when they demonise others from different parties does not benefit citizens, or the quality of debate. Many of the big issues we face - such as pandemics, climate change, migration, and limited global resources - are complex and unlikely to be solved by one party, or even one country acting alone. As suggested by Barack Obama in the opening quotation, we do have a choice over how we engage with and drive the political process. We stand a much better chance of reaching sustainable solutions if we work on problems together.
It is hardly surprising that politicians' behaviour means that they have been amongst the least trusted occupations. While nurses and doctors are trusted to tell the truth by 95% and 93% of the UK population respectively, this plummets to 17% for government ministers, and 14% for politicians generally. Politicians in other countries have been rated just as poorly2. This picture shifted in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: in a study that compared levels of trust across institutions in 11 countries, average trust in government rose from 49% in 2017 to 61% in May 2020, making it the most trusted institution for the first time. The study also shows that in the United States, Japan, and France, local government was far more trusted than federal government3, though as time went on, trust levels in some countries began to subside towards the longer-term norm4.
A global crisis like COVID-19 shows that cooperation is both essential and possible. Although some political organisations generally favour more state involvement in citizens' lives while others favour 'small government', most countries recognise that the private sector could not solve every problem, that substantial state involvement was necessary, and that different political parties needed to work together.
In what ways might cooperation improve the way politicians go about their business?
Do you think that a new form of politics is now needed to address the national and global issues we face?
Positive psychology scholar Tim Lomas defines positive politics as “the study of the impact of political policies and processes upon wellbeing". We propose that positive politics can also provide insight into the way in which wellbeing might impact the political landscape. An example of this is provided in The World Happiness Report 20195 which shows that the more unhappy people are, the less likely they are to see themselves as global citizens, and the more likely they are to support populist or nationalist parties. The rise in populism has also been fuelled by the general mistrust of politicians, leading to an anti-establishment worldview based on the belief that the political system is run by a corrupt elite with no concern for the ordinary citizen.
Wellbeing research gives us the opportunity to change politics for the better, for example, tackling the widespread public mistrust of politicians, helping us understand each other's political views better, and working together to reach more effective decisions. The rest of this chapter looks at how focussing on wellbeing might achieve these aims.