by Babak Moussavi
As my fellow editor, Joe, has pointed out, we are an optimistic species. The concept of a New Year’s resolution implies this: each year, we are filled with the belief that we can make steady and structured improvements in our lives, with the goal of becoming happier. Perhaps I was tired and misunderstood, but I am sure I heard the BBC presenter just before the new year’s celebration urging people to write down these non-binding covenants made with themselves, by saying that people who make New Year’s resolutions are “10 times more likely to achieve these goals than those who don’t”. That’s interesting: how can it only be 10 times more than those who haven’t professed goals? That means that those who don’t have goals still have a chance of achieving them!
Forgive me if I sound like a cynic. But I am not complaining about resolutions. Having a goal, a hope, or an ambition is highly valuable. Not only do you have a target, but also a sense of what will make you happy.
Nevertheless, New Year’s resolutions epitomise the individualistic notion that happiness can be made by ‘me’ alone: I only have to make these changes, and I will be happy. Cut back on fatty foods. Go to the gym more. Travel to different countries. Become a millionaire. Get a driving licence (my unspoken one for the past few years…). Such individualism, espoused by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, represents a breakdown of the European post-war consensus built around society, community, and solidarity. Indeed, as the late historian, Tony Judt, argued, modernity is not about individualism, but about learning to live together. If we forget how to do that, we can forget about happiness.
There are goals that would make us happier, safer and more comfortable. As a corollary, there are resolutions too. But we can only achieve these goals with concerted effort, not through the individualistic approach to what makes us happy.
There are many examples I would offer; most relate to the provision of local and global public goods, such as improving the quality of and access to education and healthcare, in order to enhance opportunity for all. I will be unashamedly optimistic about the effect of one societal goal though, if not about its likelihood of occurring.
My hope for 2012 is that our society begins to make a genuine, focused effort to eliminate child poverty. If we were to achieve this, the UK (for now) would be completely transformed: crime would plummet, education would rocket, innovation would expand, people would be healthier, happier, less suspicious, less envious. Indeed, one does not need to believe or reject the wealth of evidence presented in The Spirit Level, to argue that raising children out of poverty is a worthy goal.
I am deliberately not going into details here – that is manifestly not the purpose of this post. But in this context, that should not matter, as I am referring to grand hopes and abstract goals, not specific policies or watertight definitions. This does not detract from a strong belief – and hope – though: eliminate child poverty and society will flourish. Bring on 2012.