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Sunday, 21 August 2011
Riots show why happiness agenda is vital UK / PEACE & DEMOCRACY12 AUG 201
In the aftermath of the riots in London and other cities across the UK, people
are shocked and angry. The images of burning buildings and streets in ruin
are more like scenes from a disaster movie than something you’d expect to
see in a prosperous country like the UK in 2011. There are far more
questions than answers.
Although the chaos may have initially been triggered by the death of Mark
Duggan, shot by police in Tottenham, it now seems obvious that this week’s
rampage is more a case of mindless violence and opportunistic looting than a
calculated response to a specific incident. Two images, for me, highlighted
the depths to which the rioters sunk: the footage of an injured, bleeding
young person having items stolen from his backpack; and the pictures of a
charity shop having had its windows broken. Both were vivid examples of
the senseless and callous nature of the rioting.
Let’s revisit the big picture. Over the last few decades we’ve seen
unprecedented increases in average incomes and living standards, but this
hasn’t been matched by a corresponding increase in average life satisfaction.
The reasons for this are complicated but, in short, by building a
socio-economic system that promotes self-centred materialism as the route
to economic progress, we’ve exacerbated inequalities and created a culture
that brings out the worst in human nature.So what does any of this tragic and
inexplicable behaviour have to do with happiness?
Now, people are rightly calling for a focus on security, law enforcement and
justice. But if we stop to look at what might be the underlying drivers of the
rioters’ behaviour, it leads us back to issues at the heart of the agenda to
create a happier
It’s a culture that puts possessions and individual success before people and
communities. It’s why the percentage of people in the UK who say “most
other people can be trusted,” has tumbled from 60% to 30% since 1970.
This culture has also contributed to the big problem at the heart of this week’s
riots: a generation of disillusioned and disengaged kids that feel that they
don’t have any stake in society.
People who mindlessly attack their own local areas have clearly lost any
sense of connection to their communities. And when they place more value
on looting mobile phones and designer trainers than the safety and livelihoods
of their own neighbours, it suggests a culture with it’s priorities all wrong.
As one commentator noted on Twitter: “The youth of the Middle East rise
up for basic freedoms. The youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42″
Our young people are bombarded with the message that success and
happiness are tied up in money and possessions. Yet for those at the
bottom of the pyramid, these things are simply out of reach. As they watch
the rich and powerful grow in prosperity, the promised ‘trickle-down effect’
of economic progress has largely failed to reach them. While not necessarily
worse off in real terms, they are undoubtedly worse off in relative terms,
which matters deeply at the psychological level.
As the inequality gap has grown so has their anger at a sense of unfairness
and the feeling that they’re worthless in the eyes of our leaders and wider
society. And when you feel you’ve got nothing, then you’ve got nothing to
lose from lashing out.
Of course the current economic situation contributes to the problem; the
financial crisis and the largest cuts in public services for generations are
causing many people great hardship and uncertainty. But the underlying
factors run deeper than this.
Ultimately, many of the problems with disengaged teenagers can be traced
to broken families and parents who are themselves ill-equipped to raise
happy, thriving children. Many of these disaffected young people grow up
without the essential ingredients for their wellbeing: unconditional love and
The absence of these emotional and behavioural building blocks was very
evident on our streets this week. The rioters showed a complete lack of
empathy for those whose livelihoods they were wrecking and a total lack
of understanding of the personal consequences of their actions.
“There is a now very strong body of evidence linking secure attachment
and emotional intelligence in early years to positive life outcomes”
A focus on emotional factors, such as love, may seem naive at a time of
such fear and anger. But there is a now very strong body of evidence
linking secure attachment and emotional intelligence in early years to positive
life outcomes, including better academic achievement as well as lower
likelihood of involvement in criminal activities.
There is also evidence showing that children who grow up without feeling
loved and securely attached tend to place a much higher value on material
possessions as a source of fulfilment. This is desperately sad, but perhaps
it partially explains the shocking thirst for looting products, which we saw
In no way do I condone the unacceptable aggression we’ve seen on our
streets; violence solves nothing. But we all need to look inwards and accept
that all of us have some responsibility for creating the culture that has made
this level of disengagement and anger possible.
We need to reassess our priorities and pursue a fundamentally different way
of life, where we care less about what we can get for ourselves, and more
about the happiness of others. That is the only route to lasting fulfilment. At
the heart of the happiness agenda is a passion to do everything we can to
address unhappiness in the world around us, whether it comes from poverty,
depression, inequality or disaffected youth.
Yes government needs to do more, yes criminals need to be brought to
justice; but at the same time we all need to be the change we want to see
in the world.
An inspiring example of this attitude has been the hundreds of ordinary people
all over the country who have united together to clean up the mess and start
the process of rebuilding their communities. Let’s use this tragic and
turn of events to start a process of realigning our values and putting a greater
focus on equality and the happiness of those around us, especially those at
the margins of our society.