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Why the problems of democracy and happiness have more in common than you think

This is a guest blog I wrote for Transforming Society, which you can read on their website here

It’s election time. You probably know who you’re going to vote for already. In fact, if you’re reading this article, I probably know who you’re going to vote for. Politics is more tribal than ever. With the help of the internet, we now have plenty of facts and opinions to back up our political biases. And, with the help of social media, we needn’t seriously grapple with the facts and opinions of the other side – they simply seem stupid or misinformed. This is democracy as we know it. And it matters. We, the people, will vote in a government that has actual consequences for people’s lives, even if, despite all our facts and opinions, we don’t really know what those consequences will be.

Here’s how we can see the situation from the point of view of political psychology: Humans are unique in our ability to cooperate with others on a large scale (society), despite our many differences. We form group identities, including our political tribe, on the basis of shared interests and values. If we are left-leaning, it is other likeminded individuals who we can trust and cooperate with – people who like alternative music, artisan food and care about oppressed minorities. If we are right-leaning, it is the opposite – we trust people who are smartly dressed, hard-working and care mostly for their own. This determines the newspapers we read, the friends we have, and the articles we share on social media. It doesn’t matter what’s actually true. What matters is what people who are like us tell us is true. Because these are the people we can trust and cooperate with.

I suspect that most people do not see democracy in the way a political psychologist does. Why? Because we are told by the people we trust and identify with that things are straightforward and we are right – that our facts and opinions are true, that the issues we care about are the most important, and that solutions are readily available. We don’t like the idea that each one of these statements is probably wrong – that things are, in fact, too complex to grasp. We don’t like not knowing – in the detail that we need to – what kinds of policies will make people better off, which political parties and politicians are most likely to make those policies, and how to vote accordingly. So we turn to politicians and journalists to tell us all the answers. But, more often than not, they provide us with answers that are too simple to warrant our attention. We take them as the truth because it’s the best we’ve got. The alternative is uncertainty.

And this is what democracy and happiness have in common. When it comes to happiness, uncertainty is the enemy. We think we know what makes us happy, right? It’s the next promotion, the loving relationship, seeing our kids do well at school. Or it’s living in the moment, doing what we love, trying new things. The idea that we don’t actually know what will make us fulfilled in the long-term is terrifying. What then would we do? Would we just sit about and do nothing, waiting for disaster to strike? Surely we can identify what makes us happy and work hard to achieve it?

A growing body of psychological research, which I discuss in my book, The Happiness Problem, suggests that things aren’t so simple. Our personal lives are as complex as our political ones. We may have a list of things inside our head that we think will make us happy. We may feel that these things are straightforward and we are right. But the opposite is more likely to be true. Even if we achieve the items on our list, we are likely to quickly replace them with new ones. And by narrowly focusing on our list, we are likely to miss out on what really matters, including things we already have. What this research into happiness tell us is that uncertainty may in fact be the key to happiness – remaining open and adaptable to the complexities and changes in our lives. It is our ideas of what makes us happy that make us stuck.

We can say the same about democracy. Political issues are often far too complex for the average voter to adequately understand. In saying this, I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t vote – we should. Nor am I suggesting that we should leave political decisions entirely in the hands of experts or some kind of epistemic elite – we shouldn’t. What I am suggesting is that uncertainty can get us a long way – a little bit of humility and curiosity can have a huge impact on the quality of our political discourse and public debate. Some of the most important questions in the run up to the election should be: In what ways are my political views wrong? How can I understand what is right about the views of those I disagree with? Or, more generally: Am I open to being wrong? Am I willing to explore how people not like me might be right?

The more we ask these kinds of questions in the political arena, the more we can do the same in our personal lives, and vice versa. It in this way that doing democracy well and doing happiness well are linked. Both require facing up to reality – which is a messy, complex and uncertain process.

Of course, this is not what the papers are telling us. And it’s definitely not what we’re told about happiness. But that’s because the more messy and complex picture is not easy – it doesn’t sell many papers or get widely shared on social media, and it doesn’t make us want to buy fizzy drinks or go on luxury holidays. It is, however, true. And it’s how we can actually make things better, for ourselves and for everyone, in the long-term.

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