From mummy bloggers to happy planets – and back again

copyright Jim at

Copyright Jim at

The New Statesman carried a blog post the other day that started me thinking. It was by Glosswitch and entitled ‘Why do we hate Mummy Bloggers’. In fact, trying to track it down again for this post, I Googled ‘hate mummy bloggers’ and it seems there are huge numbers of people out there either telling us how much they hate mummy bloggers, or trying to work out why this should be.

I think Glosswitch is close to the truth when she says that domestic work and childcare are not valued in our society. That mummy blogs are regarded as trivial not because they are written trivially, but because it reflects our society’s level of interest in the work that mothers do.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to wax lyrical here about wifework and feminism. Many other people have done that already much better than me. No, the thing that struck me is how strongly society values creation. Anyone who has been a parent, or a carer, or a cleaner or a nurse, knows how much of the job involves maintaining the status quo. Tidying, cleaning, dressing, feeding, an endless cycle of tasks that as soon as they are done, have to be done again. A constant battle against the force of entropy.

Contrast this with the jobs that society rewards highly, either financially or in terms of status, and they have a completely different focus – they emphasise the creation of something that endures. Making a big pile of money. Building houses. Designing a dam.  Manufacturing iPods. Making a film. Writing a book. Our children become valued once they, too, start creating. (‘One’s a banker and one’s a novelist? How marvellous.’)

So if rewards are dished out for creation, but take no account of the cost, to society, to humanity, to the world, is that healthy? And meanwhile, we don’t reward the tasks that keep the world spinning, the mundane, the tidiers, the cleaners, the wipers and washers.

There are examples of rewards that are not given for creation, but for what we don’t do. Subsidies for leaving fields fallow or for not chopping down more Amazonian rain forest. Former poachers turning gamekeepers to protect endangered animals. But this could be extended into many other areas.

Here’s a rebate on your council tax because you created less than 1 kg of rubbish a week. Have this subsidy because you protected the hedgehogs in your back garden instead of building three bijou town houses at a vast profit.  Well done for not polluting any water courses this year with your factory – have a rebate on your waste permit.

All these ideas use financial incentives. And yet we know that this isn’t necessarily the best way of changing behaviour. If we were purely economic beings, calculating the best possible return on every decision, then this would be enough. But we are not. Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational shows us just how far we are from being rational creatures. He demonstrates that we are swayed by effects such as relativity, social norms, procrastination and arousal, among other things, into making decisions that are profoundly irrational every day. The whole field of behavioural economics, as discussed in Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge (and enthusiastically adopted by the government, which has a whole team devoted to it), is predicated on the idea that you can influence this irrationality to nudge people towards good decisions.

It’s not a particularly difficult step from the idea that we make decisions based on more than just economics, to the idea that perhaps we should measure our society’s success in more than just GDP. At the micro level, clearly we are made happy by many things other than money, which means that we need to recognise this at the macro level, and not just in order to manipulate sales.

The good news is that it does seem that there is increasing interest in looking at measures other than money when assessing society. A few years ago, I saw a fantastic piece of data visualisation called We Feel Fine. It monitors expressions of mood (happy, sad, depressed, angry etc) being broadcast on social media across the world to give a visual representation of how the world is feeling, in real time. Have a play with it, it’s really worth a look.

On a less fun note, David Cameron has the famous Happiness Index, which reported for the first time last year and asked people a series of questions about how happy/anxious/satisfied/worthwhile they felt. Similarly, the New Economics Foundation has come up with their own scheme, called the Happy Planet Index. This combines measures of life expectancy, ‘experienced well-being’ and a country’s ecological footprint, to produce a score for every country in the world.  (The UK comes in at number 41 out of 151, in case you were wondering.) For ‘experienced well-being’ they use the Gallup wellbeing data, based on the Cantril Scale, which asks peple to rate their life on a ladder, where 10 is the best life one could possibly have, and 0 is the worst.

I would go further than this. What is the point of measuring how happy people are, if you haven’t the first idea about why? I would suggest that we should measure not just how happy people are right now, and how happy they expect to be in the future, but those factors that contribute to happiness, not just at that moment, but over a lifetime. Not a small task, I know, but surely there’s room for combining some other factors. What about a happy, safe childhood? What about knowing that you will be cared for if you fall on hard times? What about being looked after in your old age by someone who cares? What about the opportunity to walk in the country and see wildlife every day? It seems that unless we start drilling down into exactly what it is that makes people able to have a happy life, we’ll only be measuring effects, without the first clue about the causes.

And I suspect that when we do work out what makes happy human beings, good parenting, a happy home and a healthy planet will come pretty high on the list. And suddenly, the tasks involved in preserving those might seem a whole lot more valuable.