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What Is Real Change? And What Does Happiness Have to do With It?

Jeremy Corbyn, with his Labour manifesto for the upcoming election, are promising ‘real change’. According to the manifesto, the election is, above all, “the change election”. But what is real change? And do people want it?

I suspect that half the country do not. From political psychology, we know that conservative and liberal voters have very different backgrounds, personalities and values. The conservative mindset reflects harder socioeconomic circumstances – where safety and survival are more of an issue than long-term goals and projects; and where being part of a community is a necessity, not a nice-to-have. What matters in these conditions is social order and security, not change.

In contrast, the liberal mindset is more suited to conditions of opportunity. When people can focus on their future wellbeing, rather than just getting by, then values of autonomy and personal growth take precedence. And with financial and material independence, standing up for individual rights and social equality trumps maintaining local communities and traditions. What matters in these conditions is social change and progress, not endorsing the ways things are.

To the liberal, it seems as if we have all the opportunities to create a better society – as Corbyn says: “The future is ours to make… for the many, not the few.” But to the conservative, it seems as if things are falling apart and we need to hold tight. This is why liberals look towards the future (full of opportunity and progress) and conservatives look back to the past (full of security and stability). The result is that Labour votes are desperate for ‘real change’, while Conservative voters want the complete opposite.

So is ‘real change’ just a phrase to attract left-leaning voters, while falling on deaf ears for the more conservatively minded? For many of the policies in the Labour manifesto, I think this is the case. However, seen in a different way, the idea of ‘real change’ may appeal equally to the left and right.

Remember that what conservatives want is order and security. This may not always be achieved by maintaining the status quo. Change is coming, whether we like it or not. Of course, liberals may often claim that a greater amount of change is necessary than is true. But we cannot deny that technological unemployment and climate change are going to change the way societies are run. Both liberals and conservatives will need to adapt to this – for the purposes of order and security, not just progress. This one point of agreement that reaches across the political divide.

Beyond transformational changes, I believe that taking a longer-term perspective has the potential to unite the left and right. Both liberals and conservatives care about many of the same issues: crime, health, education, economic opportunity. They just disagree on what to do about these issues – one mindset focuses on social order and security, the other focuses on social change and progress. But, in the long-term, these different mindsets may have more in common than it at first seems.

Take, for instance, the issue of crime. To maintain order and security, it helps to have more police officers on the streets and harsher sentences for convicted offenders. To make progress towards a safer society, however, it helps to rehabilitate convicted offenders, and provide support to their families, rather than simply lock them up. This is the standard conservative-liberal divide over crime policy. But from a longer-term perspective, the more effective way to reduce crime is to remove the deprived social conditions that create it, such as entrenched poverty and extreme inequality. If we want social order and security in the long-term this is what we need to do. It also happens to be something that the left and right can get on board with.

The question is: How can we switch from a short-term focus to a longer-term one? In the face of immediate threats, it makes sense to adopt simple narratives and quick fixes. It is much harder to recognise the need for additional solutions that will help maintain order and security in the long-term. This is what Labour are currently having to deal with in the current election campaign. In the face of Brexit, and the threat it poses to our democracy and economy, how can we possibly focus on anything else? We live in a society that encourages finding immediate solutions to all our problems – from life hacks to convenience foods. The idea of looking at the bigger picture, and exploring what’s better for all of us in the long-term, does not come naturally.

I have a bold suggestion, which may not immediately cure all of our social ills, but can at least help us go in the right direction. My suggestion is that we start with happiness. In my book, The Happiness Problem, I show that we have adopted an idea of happiness that relies more on simple narratives and quick fixes that discovering what is actually good for us. We think that, “if only we had ___ then we’d be happy” – where the blank is filled in by the image of a meaningful job, loving relationship, comfortable home, healthy and happy children, enjoyable leisure activities, and so on. In reality, our lives are messy and complex, and we will only find out what makes us happy through an ongoing (and difficult) process of curiosity, exploration and commitment.

The same logic applies on a social level. We may enter into the political arena with our pre-determined ideas of what will make us all better off. But, in reality, we will only be able to discover what will be good for society through an ongoing (and difficult) process of curiosity and commitment – one that explores what works immediately as well as what works in the long-term.

The personal and political are connected. The way we think about our personal success and happiness is determined by our social values and circumstances. And the way we think about our personal lives determines the political solutions we try to grasp hold of. We currently live in a society that favours short-term solutions and easy wins over the uncertain process of discovering what matters in long-term. By changing the way we think about our own happiness, we can begin to focus on how to achieve real change, together – the kind of change that appeals to the concerns of those on the left and right, not just the radical few.

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