Happiness and Well-Being
in an Age of Austerity:
The Existential Dilemma
Social Science in the City™
Dr Graham Taylor
Associate Professor in Sociology
Department of Health and Applied Social Sciences
Happiness and Well-Being in an Age of Austerity:
The Existential Dilemma
• What is Happiness and
• Well-Being at Work
• The Limits of Well-Being:
Public Service Reform
and Restructuring
• The Existential Dilemma
The Elusive Search for Happiness
• Michael Frayn – A
Landing on the Sun
– A British prime minister tasks his
advisers with looking into happiness
and what the government could do to
promote it. The prize proved elusive,
the adviser went mad and died.
Gross National Happiness?
• Kingdom of Bhutan
– Balance between material and
non-material and social and
spiritual needs
• OECD: Work of Joseph Stiglitz
and Amartya Sen highlight limits
of ‘Gross National Income’ and
search for alternatives.
David Cameron
• “It's time we admitted that there's
more to life than money and it's time
we focused not just on GDP but on
GWB – general wellbeing. Wellbeing
can't be measured by money or
traded in markets. It's about the
beauty of our surroundings, the
quality of our culture and, above all,
the strength of our relationships.
Improving our society's sense of
wellbeing is, I believe, the central
political challenge of our times."
Is Britain Happy?
• 2011 ONS Survey
• 4,200 British adults carried out
between April and August
• life-satisfaction at 7.4 out of 10
• financial situation, work and
work-life balance situation
rated at 6.2, 6.7 and 6.4
Britons still happy
despite financial
woes, survey finds
Can we really measure
Happiness and Well-Being?
Nicolas Sarkozy: the measuring of
happiness a priority.
Social Portrait of France (2010). Detailed
chapter on methodologies for measuring
Stéfan Lollivier, director of social studies
at Insee
“You can't measure happiness, it's impossible,
people don't have the same preferences for
what makes them happy. But you can measure
the fraction of people who are dissatisfied, who
think they are unhappy, and the proportion of
people who are missing out on happiness or
feel excluded from it."
Well-Being: Intellectual Traditions
• Hedonic Psychology
• Happiness
• Positive Emotions
– Presence of positive mood
– Absence of negative mood
– Satisfaction with various domains of life (e.g. work,
– Global life satisfaction
Well-Being: Intellectual
Eudaimonic well-being
Human Flourishing
Contemporary Psychology
– Autonomy
– Personal growth
– Self-acceptance
– Purpose in life
– Environmental mastery
– Positive relations with others.
Well-Being: Intellectual
Objective Well-Being
Functioning of Human Capacities
Amartya Sen
Well-Being as Substantive Freedom
– live to old age
– engage in economic transactions
– participate in political activities
The Benefits of Well-Being at Work?
• Organizations:
– higher productivity
– customer satisfaction
– organizational citizenship
• Individuals:
– Income
– Relationships
– health
• Government:
– Public spending on welfare and NHS
Well-Being at Work:
Measurement and Improvement
• Combine hedonic and
eudaimonic aspects of wellbeing
– Control and Autonomy
– Work (over)Load
– Productivity
– Psychological (Ill) Health
But What is Well-Being at Work?
• For most people, their work is a
key determinant of self-worth,
family esteem, identity and
standing within the community,
besides of course, material
progress and a means of social
participation and progress
(Dame Carol Black, Working for
a Healthier Tomorrow 2008: 4).
But What is Well-Being at Work?
• A dynamic state in which the individual
is able to develop their potential, work
productively and creatively, build
strong and positive relationships with
others and contribute to their
community. It is enhanced when an
individual is able to fulfil their personal
and social goals and achieve a sense
of purpose in society” (Mental Capital
and Wellbeing, Foresight, 2008).
But What is Well-Being at
• Psychological and Sociological
• Self (determined) identity in a social
• The absence of sociological perspectives
on happiness and well-being.
• Neo-liberalism, Workplace Restructuring
and Existential Insecurity (Zygmunt
Case Study: Public Service Professionals
• Identity: Caring, duty,
• Ending Contradiction:
Existential Insecurity
• Restructuring and
Austerity: A Threat to
Existential Well-Being?
Public Service Cuts and
• 1970s: Rationalization and
• 1980s: Privatization and
• 1990s: New Public
• 2000s: Austerity and Cuts
Impact on Public Service
• Public service ethos marginalized by
a logic of economic rationalization that
subsumes diverse practices within a
process of rationalized market-based
calculability (Du Gay, 1994).
• Decreasing Scope for critical
• New divisions based on ‘caring’ and
‘entrepreneurial’ values.
Self-Identity and Public Service
Public service identity: Search for meaning in
organizations where there were important limits on
the extent to which public service labour could be
Public Service Work: Variable, socially-responsive
and reflexive and based on the conceptualization
and amelioration of social problems.
Welfare professionals: Self-selective into
occupations on the basis of pre-existing political
beliefs and values that are hostile to corporate
capitalism and morally committed to a fairer society.
Restructuring: Public and Private redefined and
rendered ambiguous
The Limits of Well-Being
• Assumes fixed human essence.
• Assumes essence can be ‘satisfied’
by external conditions manipulated
by government or employers.
• Ahistorical and Apolitical conception
of subjectivity (power)
• Subjectivity and subjective wellbeing as ‘emergent’, ‘dynamic’ and
(potentially) ‘transformative’.
Re-Centring the Human Subject
• Sociological Turns
– Cultural
– Global
– Complexity
– De-humanization
• Existential Turn?
– Re-Centring
– Re-humanization
Why Sartre?
• Man…. ‘first of all exists,
encounters himself, surges up
in the world and defines
himself afterwards… Man is
nothing else but that which he
makes of himself’
(Existentialism is a Humanism)
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Why Sartre?
• ‘Existence precedes
• Freedom ‘We are
condemned to be free’
• Responsibility
• Authenticity
Being and Nothingness
• Being-in-itself
• Being-for-itself
• Gap = ‘Nothingness’ =
• Being-for-others > ‘Bad
Bad Faith
• Objectification
• Individuals impose limits
on own freedom in
interaction with others
• Bad faith > ‘Flight from
Public Service as Bad Faith
• Freedom – Ability to conceptualize
beyond time and space and imagine
• Public Service: (Limited) Alternative to
Commodification and Rationalization
– Reflexive work based on empathy,
discretion and tacit knowledge (Claus
– Emotional Labour
• Between public/private = inbetweenness,
liminality or ‘stickiness’
• (Self-)Responsiblity for austerity and
Existential Well-Being?
• Responsibility – Well-being
or Self and Others
• Well-Being as Freedom
• Resistance to
Objectification (particularly
objectively defined notions
of happiness and wellbeing)

Happiness and Well-Being in an Age of Austerity: The Existential