POLITICS

Happiness And Wellbeing Can Win Elections - And Here's The Evidence To Prove It

13/04/2015 13:06 BST | Updated 13/04/2015 13:59 BST

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis.

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Politicians are nearly midway through their endless discussion of the economy in an attempt to win your vote - but a landmark new study has shown this is absolutely the wrong approach.

Politicians should instead be focusing more on people's wellbeing, because this plays a crucial factor getting governments re-elected, according to the new study: "Is happiness a predictor of election results?"

Former cabinet secretary and mental health reform advocate Lord O'Donnell told HuffPost UK it was "bizarre" Prime Minister David Cameron did not talk more about wellbeing.

The research, to be published today by the London School of Economics, uses data from different EU countries in elections from the 1970s and 2012 to suggest that "voters judge elected officials at the ballot box in terms that go beyond GDP," its author George Ward told The Huffington Post UK.

He said governments were often told by economists that they must ensure buoyant economies to win votes - but his study suggests this "economic voting" theory does not provide the complete picture.

"One of the most well-known findings in economics, particularly by people themselves working in and around politics, is that the electoral success of the government is tied to the state of the economy," he said.

"What the data suggest, though, is that it’s not just the economy that matters - governments seem to have a broader incentive to ensure the wider wellbeing of voters.

"The economy is important to people’s wellbeing, of course, but it's not the only factor. The analysis points towards an electoral payoff/dividend for politicians if they focus their attention on a broad range of factors influencing people’s happiness, rather than concentrating solely on ensuring a buoyant election-year economy."

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Ward, a research assistant on wellbeing at LSE's Centre for Economic Performance, crunched data from more than 150 elections in EU countries and found "a country’s level of life satisfaction is a robust predictor of election results".

"It is in politicians’ interest not only to make voters financially better off, but also to take steps to comprehensively measure citizens’ welfare and formulate policy focused on their subjective well-being," the study concludes.

O'Donnell, who advocates "radical" change in Britain's approach to wellbeing and mental health, told HuffPost UK that Ward's study did not surprise him.

"Improved wellbeing actually buys you votes. If you have actually improved people's quality of life, during the parliament, people will feel better and they'll give that credit to government," he said.

"You'd expect the reverse to, if things have got a lot worse and well-being's gone down, you'd expect the government to suffer. Wellbeing's affected by things other than governments, but [politicians should try] to control for that as much as you can."

At the time of the last general election, the UK did not collect its own data specifically about the population's Subjective Well-Being (SWB).

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A fresh-faced Cameron gives his 2010 speech on wellbeing

O'Donnell, who presided over the coalition negotiations that saw Cameron become prime minister, said he did not understand why Cameron had not talked much about national well-being since a 2010 speech on the subject, when the ways of measuring it, introduced under his watch, showed it was improving.

Launching a drive to collect data on SWB in November 2010, Cameron gave a speech, saying: "You can’t legislate for fulfillment or satisfaction, but I do believe that government has the power to help improve wellbeing, and I’m not alone in that belief... Not all of life can be measured on a balance sheet."

He quoted American politician Robert Kennedy, who said that measuring a country by GDP "does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

"Bizarrely, the PM, to my mind, hasn't kept on about this enough because actually wellbeing's been going up during his prime ministership and the numbers with anxiety have been going down. Within this parliament, there's a definite reduction in inequality of wellbeing," O'Donnell said.

"He created the data which allows us to know these things, he should be massively congratulated for that but I just wish that he'd talk about it more."

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O'Donnell (pictured sitting) said Cameron should talk more about national well-being

Britain's Office of National Statistics (ONS) began asking four questions about SWB as part of its annual surveys in 2011.

These ask people whether they are satisfied with their lives, feel what they do is worthwhile, how happy they feel and how anxious they feel.

Eurobarometer, the EU's attitudes survey on which Ward's findings were based, provides a snapshot of Britain's feeling of well-being at last election and this one.

But election pundits looking for a statistic on which to base an exact prediction of who will win on May 7, will be disappointed. The results show little difference between then and now.

The survey from June 2010, the closest to the last election, found 40% of people were "very satisfied" with their lives, while 52% were "fairly satisfied", 7% were "not very satisfied" and 1% "not at all satisfied".

The most recent survey, from November 2014, found that 41% were very satisfied 52% were fairly satisfied, 6% not very satisfied and 1% not at all satisfied.

The ONS data also shows a steady rise in life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety and feelings of overall worth.

When asked what his study predicted for next month's election, Ward urged caution, saying it was difficult to predict an exact vote share because of the number of factors at play.

He pointed out this election had two incumbent parties vying for votes, adding there was little "long-run data on how coalitions play out in the UK context".

Ward said: "The question then that we’d all like to answer is what does this mean exactly for the May election… And there’s no simple answer really, I’m afraid."

He added: "Generally, though, the fact that the UK wellbeing numbers have stayed very healthy over the last five years, despite often quite poor economic performance, could well be quite good news for the coalition parties.

"But there are of course other factors that go into determining an election result."

As part of The Huffington Post UK's Beyond The Ballot series we want to know what issues you think aren't getting enough attention in the election campaign. Tweet using the hashtag #BeyondTheBallot to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions

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