OPINION
30/07/2019 08:42 BST

Boris Johnson Is Right, The UK Needs Optimism – But It Must Be Authentic

If our new PM genuinely wants to build a thriving and optimistic Britain, he must focus on policies which will enhance people's wellbeing, Action For Happiness director Mark Williamson writes.

Press Association

Our new Prime Minister has boldly promised the “beginning of a new golden age,” encouraging us to ignore the “doubters, doomsters and gloomsters” and look beyond the negativity which has pervaded our national mood.

Boris Johnson swept into Number 10 with the boundless enthusiasm of an excited golden retriever – full of confidence, energy and self-belief. Is this bluff and bluster to push through his personal agenda, or is an injection of national optimism exactly what we need right now?

Evidence-based research shows that an optimistic outlook can bring significant benefits, including lower risks of cardiovascular diseasebetter health and longevitygreater resiliencestronger relationships and increased self-efficacy.

Authentic leaders are realists as well as optimists, able to show vulnerability, admit mistakes and to compromise where necessary for the greater good.

But embracing optimism doesn’t mean we should become naive Pollyannas, turning a blind eye to the very real problems we face. Quite the opposite. Authentic optimism is gritty and grounded; it involves seeing the world as it is, but choosing to focus on what’s good and what’s possible. In their review of optimism research, Seligman and Forgeard make the case for this grounded optimism, concluding: “The most adaptive outlook therefore seems to be mostly optimistic, tempered with small doses of realistic pessimism when needed.”

Although Boris is currently enjoying the chance to label his challengers as pessimists and purveyors of doom and gloom, this is dangerous and inauthentic: akin to Donald Trump branding all critical coverage as “fake news”. Authentic leaders are realists as well as optimists, able to show vulnerability, admit mistakes and to compromise where necessary for the greater good.

The elephant in the room is Brexit, of course. But, whatever the outcome over the coming months, if our new PM genuinely wants to build a thriving and optimistic Britain, he must focus on policies which will genuinely enhance the wellbeing of the people. This calls for a different set of priorities, with radical changes in our approach to health, education, social care and the climate crisis.

For a refreshing example of optimistic leadership, look to Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand PM who recently introduced a Wellbeing Budget, focused on “improving the wellbeing of our people, protecting the environment and strengthening communities”. Although Boris may not share her policy priorities, he might at least note the sentiments of another high-profile optimist, Richard Branson, who welcomed her approach as “a brilliant blueprint for the rest of the world”.

Recent research shows increasing people’s wellbeing is a stronger predictor that a government will be re-elected than conventional economic measures such as GDP, unemployment or inflation.

Here in the UK, much of the groundwork for a new set of priorities has been done. The Office for National Statistics has been measuring national wellbeing in a rigorous and systematic way since 2011. And the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics recently published a Spending Review to Increase Wellbeing. This is serious evidence-based work, not wishful thinking.

The report, spearheaded by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell and LSE economist Professor Richard Layard, describes wellbeing as including “everything that is important to people and their lives” and calls for this to serve as the “central goal for our society and overriding aim of government policy”. It makes the case for spending on specific priority areas: scaling up support for mental health, improving children’s wellbeing in schools, investing in social care and community services, helping young people enter the workforce and transforming workplace wellbeing. 

As he mulls the prospect of an election on the horizon, Boris might also reflect on recent research showing that increasing people’s wellbeing is a stronger predictor that a government will be re-elected than conventional economic measures such as GDP, unemployment or inflation. So, this is both a moral and pragmatic way forward.

One of the key attributes of an optimist is their potential to unite and bring people together. The sad backdrop to the rise of populism in recent years has been a politics based on fear and anger, driven by the toxic ‘us-vs-them’ narrative. This has led to a mass societal “fight-or-flight” response to perceived dangers, bringing out worst of human nature. We can do much better than this. 

So, in the spirit of looking for what’s good, let’s welcome a more optimistic national debate, but ensure we focus on the things that really matter for enhancing wellbeing and building a stronger, happier and more hopeful Britain, where everyone feels included. 

Dr Mark Williamson is CEO of Action for Happiness