I try to `read around' a bit these days. Pick a range of stuff so I don't just hear the same thing over. So I walked out of Waterstone's in York on Saturday with the following: Phillip Blond's `Red Tory', David Willetts' `The Pinch', `The Spirit Level'by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Richard Layard's book on Happiness. Each of this lot sit somewhere between traditional right and firm left with Blond, obviously, astride the two.
And you know what? They are all saying very similar things. That materialism has hit definite upper limits in terms of what it can do for us. That happiness seems to be linked to levels of inequality in society. That striving for personal enrichment rather than the well-being of others is, quite literally, making us mentally ill.
The core message of all of these authors is that we have lost our way. That we have become so dissociative, so self-absorbed, so status-preoccupied that our quality of life is now actually in decline.
The solution, say all of our authors, is to eschew these values. That to be happy, paradoxically, involves thinking about ourselves less and others more. Forgetting ourselves seems somehow important for mental and physical well-being. There's lots of evidence here, its not just opinion.
Just how hostage we all are to the prevailing norms of our society, even those of us who consider ourselves on the less avaricious side, is clear to me when I look at myself. I am one of Thatcher's children. I compare myself with others all the time both in money and status terms. I obsess endlessly about my own life. Not so much how I am seen, but planning in quite calculated detail, how to be, in my own terms, successful. I like to think I inject this with balance and consideration for others, but I am, in the way my mind works, not all that different from the typical self-centred westerner these books roundly criticise.
How does one actually change? Not without difficulty I suggest. Despite the evidence that a more equal society will mean that Britain would probably be better for even those of us on higher incomes, I really struggle with the idea of 50% tax. To me, the idea of individuals reaping the rewards of their labour trumps the social equality argument, though obviously I accept the need to soften the impact of this principle through progressive taxation. Or is this my habituation to a low-tax society in which we tend just to put ourselves first regardless?
Whether I can change is, in a way, neither here or there. The die may or may not be cast. But my kids? The direction of travel, according to research, isn't good. Their upbringing in what has become a more self and body obsessed society than the one I grew up in during the 70s and 80s will, I sense, make a key difference to how they turn out. I want them not only to be decent people but also happy people. Trite to say perhaps, but it is every parents' first concern.
My hope, reading all these books, from left and right, is that we may, just may, be arriving at a consensus as a society that the addition of more material wealth into our lives has a nil or possibly negative effect on our well-being. And that, on a macro-level, by seeking a levelling of opportunity and outcomes, we may ourselves thrive more than we are doing today.