24/09/2014 12:12 BST | Updated 24/11/2014 05:59 GMT

So It Turns Out Londoners Aren't All That Happy - What Can We Do About It?


Picture yourself at the gym with a personal trainer. They've got you working out on the treadmill and they keep upping the pace. You feel physically sick but you can't get off because you fear being humiliated - deemed to have failed by the Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator you hired to shout irreverent slogans at you in the hope they might make your life happier.

Research published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that a huge number of Londoners have become similarly tied to a variation of Arnie's treadmill - the treadmill of work. Economic news bulletins give us an almost daily reminder that London is the wealth-generating capital of the UK, a fact reinforced by the physical environs of this megacity with its financial district, sky-high flats, huge offices, and swanky bars and restaurants. It's a city built around the culture of chasing the dollar - as well as the yen, yuan, euro, and ruble. The Arnold Schwarzenegger's of big business - the Mayor, our leading politicians, the media, and of course the CEOs of the UK's largest corporations - benefit hugely from telling us that hard-work leads to high incomes and high incomes will make us happy. They hold the controls to the treadmill and while everyone else is jogging along to their economic tune, it's hard to be the one to make the first leap and jump right off.

This is despite the fact that the training programme they've designed for us isn't making us any healthier or happier. The ONS' data showed that whilst, on average, Londoners have the highest disposable incomes in the country they are also the most anxious and have the lowest levels of life satisfaction.

None of this will come as any surprise to anyone who has read their Spirit Level or the works of economists like Richard Layard or philosophers such as Peter Singer who have argued that money can't buy us happiness. In fact, there appears to exist a "happiness paradox": once personal income rises above subsistence level, happiness does not increase. Instead, it is more likely to decrease because a focus on money-making creates harsher social comparisons and ultimately encourages greed and materialism. Far from bringing contentment, such behaviours distract us from those aspects of our lives (friends, family, and communities) that hold their own intrinsic and life-satisfying values. Instead we seek to compare our fortunes with those of our neighbours - keeping up appearances with Hyacinth Bucket next door.

The question, though, is what can we actually do with this research? Reflecting the values of its workers, much of London's prestige is now based on its position as a wealth-generator and financial dynamo. The foot-soldiers who put in long hours at the office hoping to get just a small slice of the pie are unlikely to turn their back on this dream simply because of an ONS bulletin. At the other end of the hierarchy, those with their fingers on the treadmill have absolutely no interest in upending this working culture whilst it helps to boost their company's profits and return value to their shareholders.

In fact, far from having these practices undermined, the government is successfully spreading its economic dogma. George Osborne wants Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield to become economic "powerhouses" of the north. Manchester and Leeds in particular are being earmarked as cities that could one-day become financial rivals to London. But who really wants to replicate the dissatisfaction found in the capital? Meanwhile those institutions and organisations that could represent the interests of ordinary workers and question the wisdom handed down to them by their bosses receive are subjected to an almost daily hammering in the press. Unions are scalded for calling strikes, helping to turn the tide of public opinion against them.

These are the organisations that fought for weekends, paid leave, sick pay, and Bank Holidays (though, sadly, not for the right to sunshine for the inaugural August Bank Holiday washout). They could become the vanguards of action calling for reduced working hours, flexible working or even the new economic foundation's (nef) proposal to create a three-day working week. All of these suggestions could help to rebalance our working life and offer us a more balanced and enjoyable life-style and one that doesn't necessarily rely on you being amongst the top wage earners for the country. It's difficult to imagine, however, such changes being on the agenda of George Osborne's next meeting with the CEOs of London's major banks or top of Boris Johnson's priority list for his remaining year as London Mayor (though if he does successfully split his time between being Mayor of the UK's largest city, writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph, and being an MP he could become quite the evangelist for part-time, flexible working).

Nonetheless, there is cause for hope. Not only are organisations like nef pushing out alternative models and parties like my own - the Greens - responding by picking up the political baton, the very fact that "mainstream" agencies like the ONS in the UK - and internationally the United Nations - are asking questions about workers' happiness and the link between earnings and satisfaction (and that the BBC were prepared to report on them) just goes to show that these issues are being taken more and more seriously. Sometimes just asking the right questions is enough to provoke a debate and prompt change.