Sir Gus O’Donnell on the politics of well-being

Last month I interviewed Sir Gus O’Donnell for a forthcoming Radio 4 programme about the revival of Aristotle’s idea of flourishing in public policy. Sir Gus is one of the pioneers of a new movement called the politics of well-being, which agrees with Aristotle that the proper aim of government is the enhancing of citizens’ flourishing or eudaimonia.

Since 2010 (when Sir Gus was head of the civil service) the Office of National Statistics has started measuring our national hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, in the hope that the data will be used to guide public policy. After leaving public office last year, Sir Gus joined the economics consultancy Frontier Economics as non-executive chairman. It looked conducive to employee flourishing – it had an open plan office, a big kitchen, table-football, and the occasional poster offering well-being advice. Here are his thoughts on Aristotle, the politics of flourishing, and why he didn’t become a monk.

You’re still a passionate advocate for the politics of well-being. Why is it so important to you?

It seems to me if you think about what success is for individuals and governments, governments are trying to improve the quality of life for people. Now you can think about different ways of measuring the quality of life, but surely in a democratic society, part of it should be, how do people feel? Do they feel overall that their life is worthwhile, do they feel satisfied, are they happy? Those are really important things. And until recently we were not systematically measuring those factors.

Do you think the fact we weren’t previously measuring those things created a bit of a moral vacuum in government?

I’ve always said, if you treasure it, measure it. We place undue weight in the things we can measure precisely, even though they’re actually the wrong concepts. For example GDP – actually we don’t measure it that precisely. But we put out numbers that suggest we measure it to the last pound. And people place a lot of emphasis on that – is the economy growing, is GDP going up. When in fact, what we should be saying is, are we improving the quality of life for people in this country?

Do you think we can define well-being or flourishing for an entire country, and then measure it?

Source – ONS data for 2013/2014

We’ve gone round the country and asked a lot of people – what for you constitutes the good life. As a result of that, the ONS has come up with four questions: do you think your life is worthwhile, are you satisfied with your life, what’s your happiness level, and what’s your level of anxiety. The last two are ‘affect measures’. If you think of one thing the governments could do, it would be to get rid of misery. That’s why the well-being approach has an enormous policy implication: do more about mental health problems. At the moment we spend huge amounts on physical health, yet only one in four people with mental health problems get treatment. Imagine if one in four people with a broken leg got treatment and the other three were told ‘tough’.

No policies in the last 50 years seem to have made much difference to national well-being levels. Do you think if we do more for mental health policy it will eventually push up our national well-being level from a 7 to an 8, for example?

People talk all the time about inequality of income and wealth, but what we should really care about is inequality of well-being. And it’s that group at the bottom, the ones who are really desperately ill, they’re the ones I care about. And yes, that would affect the overall average level of well-being. But more importantly, it would help those in the worst state in our society improve their level of well-being, that’s what I care about.

If politicians got more onboard with this new politics of well-being, how would Britain look different in 30 years?

We’d start to think about what would make a difference to people’s well-being. We need to do more research, so we’ve launched a new What Works Centre on well-being. This isn’t just what governments can do, there’s lots individuals can do too. But if you’re saying what could governments do, at the macroeconomic level, it might mean trading a bit of economic growth for more economic stability, because job insecurity and unemployment has a negative well-being impact. Building resilience for people is also hugely important. People need to be able to withstand the ups and downs of a globalised society. And the best time to improve resilience is in childhood. Some of these resilience and mindfulness programmes in schools are in my view going to make a huge difference.

Sir Isaiah Berlin thought governments should protect citizens’ negative liberty, and not really be in the business of trying to enhance their positive liberty – their flourishing or moral freedom. He thought there was a danger of tyranny if governments say ‘we can make you happy, we can make you morally free’. Do you think this new politics of well-being embraces the idea governments can enhance our positive liberty?

I’ve never understood this ‘nanny state’ idea, because actually it’s one of the most democratic things known to man – this is asking individuals how they feel, so the power is with them. I am absolutely not for saying states should decide what it is that constitutes things which are the good life – I’m quite nervous about that. But allowing individuals to tell you if they feel their well-being is enhanced, I think that’s hugely important.

Are people’s self-reported feelings of happiness really a good guide to policy? A gangster might feel their life is full of meaning and value and happiness, but they might be wrong.

The government’s National Citizen Service encourages young people to volunteer for worthwhile causes

Absolutely. People can be wrong. Education is really important. So’s the law. You could have a serial killer who gets a kick out of killing people. We are thinking of the well-being of society. What you’re trying to teach, at school and throughout people’s lives, is that helping other people helps your well-being too. One of the interesting studies in Daniel Kahnemann’s book was they gave $20 to some experiment participants, and the people who gave some or all of it away reported feeling better than those that didn’t. And they didn’t expect that. Recently we’ve discovered that things like volunteering make a huge difference, not just for the people you help, but the individuals who volunteer report higher well-being. So there is something intrinsic in human nature that means you get a lot more benefit out of helping others – it gives you a real buzz.

You successfully introduced these ideas into public policy when you were head of the civil service. Was it a tough sell to politicians?

David Cameron had made a speech saying he wanted to measure well-being, that there was more to life than GDP, when he was leader of the opposition. So it was obvious when he came into office that he wanted to do that, and I was able to help him do so. This was very much led from the top, by the prime minister. Because it was such an obvious thing – why wouldn’t you want to improve the quality of life of the people in the country? It’s so blindingly obvious. The biggest obstacle is people thinking this is all fluffy. Getting the measurement out there and explaining that we’ve been using this idea in public policy for years. In health, for example, when you’re deciding whether to use this drug or that drug, how do you compare? You look at the impact on QALYs – quality-adjusted life years. That’s a way of making hard-nosed decisions.

To what extent do Aristotle’s ideas on flourishing feed into contemporary politics of well-being?

Sir Gus O’Donnell next to David Halpern, head of the nudge unit and another big advocate for the politics of well-being

Aristotle’s ideas are a part of it. My intellectual journey, starting as an academic economist, for us, standard economics was very much utilitarian – we thought every individual maximized their utility, subject to budget constraint and prices. You get some very elegant mathematical theories telling you markets are very good at delivering good outcomes. But there are lots of assumptions implied and a lot of them don’t work in the real world. So economists tend to start off as utilitarians. Then I was at Oxford, and had time to go and listen to a lot of philosophers. I realized there are plenty of criticisms of utilitarianism. Aristotle comes into that – his concept of flourishing is it’s not just utility, it goes beyond that. So as an economist, you come across people like Amartya Sen talking about enhancing capabilities. There’s a rich discussion between philosophy, economics and political science about how there’s more to life than the narrow utilitarianism of many economists. So now we’re trying to operationalize that into public policy.

Aristotle wrote his Nichomachean Ethics for his son. Has exploring this area influenced you as a father?

Yes, enormously. What did it for me was when I was talking to leaders in the private sector and public sector. And I was really impressed by private sector leaders who could really get their staff enthusiastic about their vision. And their vision was selling more cornflakes or pot noodles. And I thought, in the public sector it should be so much easier, because what we’re trying to do is enhance the quality of everybody’s lives, and help those who are most disadvantaged. I’m delighted to say my daughter has decided to go down the public sector route, and has embraced that.

Sir Thomas Cromwell,  not a fan of monasteries

Right at the end of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the ultimate road to eudaimonia is contemplation. This idea of the importance of contemplation helped inspire the blossoming of monasteries for hundreds of years, until Thomas Cromwell intervened with the Dissolution. Now mindfulness is making a comeback, and is a big part of the politics of well-being. Do you think we should bring back institutions dedicated to contemplation – neo-monasteries, if you will?

Well, as you can imagine from some called Augustine O’Donnell, I was brought up in a quite strict Catholic background, and at times my parents were saying would one of the five of us should become a priest or a nun. I thought about this quite hard, since I was number five and the first four had let me down. In the end I decided it’s not for me – when you think about it, the monks going off to contemplate, they believed in the power of prayer to improve society. I find that difficult to swallow. I think it’s much more important that we don’t just look after ourselves. I find my well-being much more enhanced by helping other people. If it’s just about privately going away and feeling good about yourself, that’s too limited.

So there you go – no major monastic revival on the cards, but hopefully a lot more emphasis on mental health policy. You can also read an interview with Richard Layard, another key figure in the UK politics of well-being, here.