What’s It All For? More Happiness …

Steve Richards: \”Will Cameron\’s Idea of Happiness Last?\”

It seems David Cameron was serious about bringing well-being into the heart of government decision-making – he’s still speechifying like a man possessed on the topic.  Some interesting musings as ever by Steve Richards of The Independent on the politics of this. Whatever my thoughts about Cameron, I think he’s onto a good thing here, both politically and in terms of public policy. He needs some evidence to justify saving some of the socially useful local institutions that need saving at the moment, like post offices and libraries.

The Big Society idea can still have legs but only if it’s not seen to be the deceptive “good cop” to the cuts agenda’s “bad cop”.  He needs to start saving some libraries, to put it bluntly, to show he really does understand what people value and how society works at a grass roots level. If the Big Society isn’t on the side of those kind of campaigns, frankly most people aren’t going to get what it’s for and will conclude it is the fig leaf that many on the left claim it is.

Well-being measures could provide just the “evidence” Cameron needs to be able to steer the politically popular and socially-connected course he surely wants to take. Without them, he risks looking like every saved post office is saved reluctantly, that it is not part of the plan. With them, he can perhaps ride two horses at once: making the cuts and having a coherent way of working out when and how the worst excesses of them should be tempered.

The research interest in all this is of course that a lot of thought is going to have to go into determining how to establish these measures and how to track them. I’m not lucky enough to be one of the people working on this at the moment, but this is sure to be a fertile and fascinating area for the lucky qual researchers involved in mapping out the “well-being” territory. I’ll be watching with interest to see what emerges – and in particular, whether the measures they come up with will be grounded in behaviour or in attitudes. There will be strong arguments for sticking to measuring behaviour – finding behaviours that are proxies for well-being and measuring them. But can this be done in a meaningful way? We shall see.

Qualitative research and behavioural economics

Looking up at the bookshelf, there is Charles Leadbeater‘s We-Think, Dan Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational and kicking around the house somewhere is Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge; not forgetting Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Having been interested in these accessible paperbacks on “behavioural economics” (or, if you prefer, explanations of human behaviour and decision-making) for a while, it is exciting indeed to be attending a course tomorrow organised by the AQR on the topic – and how it impacts on qualitative research.

Rather than write in relative ignorance today, I’ll post something more detailed after the course. But I was interested in a paper by one of the speakers, the brilliant Wendy Gordon, who is responsible for guiding generations of qual researchers from afar through her own seminal publications on qual and how to do it – most famously Goodthinking (1999). She writes of the “dynamic” school of qual research – of which I hope I am a (very small) part – which grasps the inadequacies of ‘traditional’ methodologies and embraces the shift towards more behavioural focus: Gordon, IJMR Vol53. I’ve certainly seen this in shopper research and am a huge fan of technologies that assist that – Eyetracker and so on. What struck me though was the vehemence of her rejection of the other school of qual research, the “positivists”. As she describes them, they are indeed everything you try to get away from as a thinking qual researcher: purveyors of reportage and literalness and the belief that what people come up with on the day is the whole story. It’s such a valuable article – because it gives us all in qual a kick up the backside and reminds us of the work we should be encouraging clients to commission.

Wendy Gordon: embracing behavioural economics

Unfortuntely, a lot of people commissioning qual do think like the “positivists” even in 2011. This is not their fault; the way qual has been explained to a lot of researchers and client-side practitioners who are not qual experts has been inadequate.  It is a version of qual that fits seamlessly with other forms of data gathering and insight management – missing the point that doing qual properly requires the user to make a paradigm shift in their approach to the learnings. Good qual takes on board some difficult thoughts about the nature of research and truth. Put simply, what participants tell us in qual cannot give “the answer”, but it is evidence we use to get to an answer. The best evidence we can gather as qual researchers is that which allows us to see actual behaviours, not just (or as well as) people’s accounts of those behaviours. Actually, this is true of quantitative data also, this is not just a point for qual researchers. I for one am now steeled to be more rigorous in insisting on methodologies that can deliver this kind of insight. Tomorrow can help me plan what kind of work I want to be doing in Shore as I develop.

The royals: back by popular demand (but not so sure about Charles)

The future of the British monarchy looks brighter after a successful and popular royal wedding. Though less deferential and starry-eyed than 30 years ago, most people  enjoyed this wedding for what it was: a big public occasion to celebrate something simple – two nice people getting married: Ipsos MORI monarchy poll. We love a day off and we love a big event. Couldn’t go wrong. So is the monarchy safe?

Getting it wrong; getting it right

How close Britain was to losing that connection between people and monarchy in the wake of Princess Diana‘s death, we will never know. I tend to think the risk has been exaggerated. The Queen’s authority was never really in doubt. What was in doubt then and has remained in doubt since is whether we want Prince Charles to ever become king.

The Reuters / Ipsos MORI figures in the link above show, “as in 2005, opinion is split on whether Charles should step aside to allow William to become king; 46% think Charles should relinquish his right to ascend the throne compared with 47% who say he should not.” [Shore Qual bold]

Given that Charles is heir to the throne, 46 per cent is a huge proportion of the population to object to his becoming king. It will not be lost on those advising the monarchy, though they may be tempted to hope that people will come round in time. I have my doubts. Nor is it a flash in the pan: this figure has remained fairly solid over time. So while the monarchy enjoys a renaissance, it also has a huge risk to its future to negotiate, in the person of Prince Charles. In the moment of the monarchy’s renaissance can be found jarring notes that must surely add to the case for Charles to let the crown pass straight to William.

Charles apparently objected to the two most recent ex- Prime Ministers being invited to the wedding. There is some speculation as to why: that Cherie Blair did not curtsy to the Queen; that Charles blames Blair for asking the royal family to respond to the public in the wake of Diana’s death; that he is punishing Blair for the fox-hunting ban. Whatever the reason, as Simon Schama commented in the BBC coverage, it looks ill-judged. Especially when you look at the other people who did get invited: Serbian royalty anyone? Serbia doesn’t even recognise them, it’s a republic.

Charles’s flaw is that he does not appear to rise above politics. This may be unfair – perhaps he is genuinely politically neutral – but the appearance of being somewhat clumsy with his political interventions has dogged him for decades. Several government ministers have testified to having to deal with his “suggestions” on matters of government policy. This irritates many now; it could be catastrophic for the monarchy if he continues in that vein as king.

Monarchy survives in 21st Century Britain because it is accepted, or at least acquiesced in, by most of the public. It’s worth keeping, most of us feel: but it’s only because we, the people, want it. The Queen has been exemplary – but how will we react to a more divisive monarch? If William & Kate’s wedding put the Republican cause back 20 years, Charles’s accession could advance it exponentially.

I have a feeling there are some wise heads at work now on how to make sure that never comes to pass. Must check Bet 365 on the odds …

Edgelands, wastelands and The Fall

Building blocks for life

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts‘ book Edgelands – about the aesthetics and psycho-geography of forgotten interzones of “waste” land on the edges of our towns and cities – has been an inspiring and thought-provoking book of the week on Radio 4: Edgelands – R4 Book of the Week

Anyone who watched Coast a couple of years ago will have been struck by the aerial images of containers lined up at Tilbury docks and the peculiarly pleasing Legoland look of it. Edgelands is a poetic reappraisal of places like container ports, industrial estates, power stations, storage facilities. One of the writers remembers the assumptions he grew up with – life was a game of “the one who dies with the most things wins.” This acquisitive society produced the Edgelands, as much as it produced the areas we actually like to spend time in. They jar because we prefer a strict urban / rural dichotomy. They don’t fit, so we don’t see them; or if we do, we don’t like what we see.

Mark E Smith of The Fall was onto this 30 years ago, with his scabrous commentary on our decaying industrial wastelands, Grotesque.  He brought to scatchy life an uncomfortable, unpretty Britain of container drivers, cash ‘n’ carries, debt-ridden estates and hopeless government schemes. It could be the soundtrack to this book.

But Farley and Symmons Roberts – at least in the extracts I’ve caught so far – bring a contemplative, calm pace to their wanderings in the wilderness in place of Smith’s acidic rasps. In doing so, they awaken us to some wonderfully absurd truths about what goes on around us unnoticed. They look at containers on the docks and think of where they have been: the Barbies or iPods inside them on epic voyages from China, sailing across remote icy oceans few humans ever see.

If their aesthetic sense seems at times downright cussed – are all these de-industrialised places so full of beauty? – it’s not as perverse as it initially sounds. I took my son to the site of a Bronze Age hill fort in Oxfordshire a couple of weeks ago to fly his kite. Beautiful countryside all around, but it overlooked what I regarded as the ugly stain of Didcot Power Station, with its vast cooling towers. My 7-year-old, though, didn’t see it like that. The view of the countryside meant little to him; but he marvelled at the human-made shapes and emissions of the power station.

Listening to Edgelands, I remembered that I used to see things like he does too – and I’ve lost that. My appreciation of the countryside, which is now so important to me, is only one way of seeing beauty in the world and, without further thought, it can close others down. When my son responds to striking shapes and forms, he notices things I don’t see any more. Far from being some pretentious art school construction, Edgelands‘ manifesto to see the beauty in the marginal spaces of Britain gets back to a child’s eye view. A breath of fresh air, even if it has industrial pollutants billowing through it.

Keef’s Life: how we laugh at our icons

Reading this review of Keith Richards‘ autobiography – Life– enthused me to browse through it again with renewed interest. It reminded me what a good read the book is, but also how well cross-fertilisation can happen between a work and the comments around it.

Now, where was I ... No really, where was I?

Perhaps it’s me being overly interested in the opinions of others, but Dan Chiasson‘s article was one of those that makes you see more in the book than you saw yourself first time.  This is what thought-provoking journalism – and even more so, the critiques we do in creative development research – should be trying to do every time.

New York Review of Books on \’Life\” by Keith Richards

Reading the book itself has been a chastening experience.

Firstly, I realise how uncool I am. I realised anyway, but to read about the ‘scene’ Richards was around in 60s London is to be transported into another world. Not one I hugely admire, with my wage-earning, child-rearing hat on – and not good for the soul. But definitely cooler, if cool matters, than my watching of Grey’s Anatomy box-sets with the missus.

Secondly, I realise I have allowed my view of Richards’ life to be coloured by the way he is now. I’d wrapped him up in a bundled labelled alternately “60s victim” and “ageing rocker”. But life is as much about the getting there as the place you end up, is it not? Richards’ story reveals several different Keefs, sometimes operating at the same time, and hindsight doesn’t really help us understand any of them. But they all seem unrecognisable from the man now. Even Richards himself doesn’t shed much light on the conundrum: what he rates about himself (his skull rings for example; his “gallantry”, evoked even when moving in on Anita Pallenberg under the nose of Brian Jones) aren’t necessarily the things we’d pick out.

But Chiasson is right: Richards has a sharper eye and better memory than we might have assumed, at least until you get to the heroin years. His is a riveting story of a talented man who surfed through much of his life, only dimly aware of the size and force of the wave he was on. You want to step back and laugh at the outlandish excesses – and you can do. And he is not now the icon of cool that he once was. But I was left thinking, what I make of this man depends upon some answers to some much deeper questions.

Do I admire the bravery of artists who just get out and do it? Or slightly pity the failings in critical faculties that so often come with that lack of inhibition? Do I admire people who try to be true to themselves, as society increasingly demands – even when I can see the damage they have done to other people to achieve this?  These contradictions nestle uncomfortably in my head.

What is Keith Richards now? In 21st Century Britain, we see – in our oh so sensible way – the value to us of our rock icons living the kind of life Keith Richards lived. They take the highs and the lows, they do stupid things, occasional great things, they die young or age prematurely – and we as an audience gasp and smile from the comfort of our much safer lives. That relationship between the public and life-endangering rock stars was set by Richards’ generation in the 60s and isn’t going to change soon. Most icons are also laughing stocks these days.  But there will always be icons, one suspects …

Qual’s harder than it looks … no kidding, girlfriend

They're big on this in Korea

Interesting discussion on Today this morning about the “alternative census” done by the champion of numerical literacy the More Or Less programme, among their listeners. More or Less on Radio 4 – alternative census. Unusual to hear the nature of qualitative data discussed half-decently in the media, albeit for 30 seconds.

As a qual practitioner and advocate, I was thrilled to hear Tim Harford of More Or Less observe that he was most interested in the qualitative data (albeit it was just some open-endeds) and equally thrilled to hear him observe how hard it is to make sense of large amounts of qualitative data.

May I just say, I am available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.

“Fairness is about how happiness is distributed”

This discussion at the RSA is well worth a listen, for anyone interested in, well, having a good life – but more specifically, it’s about the idea David Cameron seems to have embraced, that government should be focussed on the well-being and “happiness” of its citizens, not just in growing GDP: Richard Layard with Andrew Marr at RSA – happiness.

Miserable purveyor of happiness: Les Dawson

Hard to argue with the basic point, I feel: increasing wealth works its magic for sure, but only on the less well-off. Once you reach a certain level – and it’s not very high up the income scale – further increases do not make you any more fulfilled or happy. Watching Series One of Mad Men on DVD at the moment, the malaise at the heart of modern society is on my mind. But Mad Men and Lord Layard‘s work are part of a wider phenomenon that has picked up a head of steam in the last five to ten years, pre-dating the crash but reinforced by it: that we in the West have veered off track and are no longer living lives that work for us as individuals, for our families, or wider society.

This reappraisal of where we are is not just a UK phenomenon, but it is strong here and it is not going away. To me it is a hugely interesting part of being alive here now in 2011. I do believe we are gradually going through a major shift in how we live and work. It’s not a shift in values – I think they have already shifted – it’s bringing our actual behaviour up to speed with what we have already decided needs to happen. Businesses and government have been wrestling with this for years, but it’s only just started.

It seems to me this shift was already happening when I entered the workforce in the mid-90s. The City, where I then worked, was full of these guys who had made their fortunes and were investing now part-time, almost as a hobby. OK, it was rich guys who could afford not to work, but it interested me that so many had chosen to step away. They had developed a wider perspective on life: self-actualisation through career alone was out of the window.

More modestly there were the people “downshifting”: realising they’d be happier not being a wage-slave and making do with less so they could have more time with the family and things they loved. Meanwhile, most of us worker ants were working ever harder and longer hours and wondering when we’d be able to break out of it somehow, either by moving up or shifting across. I made my own move out of City law into qual research – with a 50 per cent pay cut – in 1998. I then worked harder than I did as a lawyer for a fraction of the pay for the next 12 years. But loving my researcher life, I’ve always felt it was the best thing I ever did (marriage and child aside!).

As someone who, at one point, looked ahead to my future career with dread and trepidation, I find it a wonderful thing that more and more of us are jumping out of that mindset and demanding something better for ourselves. This is all about thinking about happiness and our real end goals, rather than just schlumping into a career track. Even a flat economy will not hold back this huge social force from continuing to changing businesses and government. This isn’t going away.

Marketing budget optimists

Is there something irrepressibly optimistic about marketers? Careful with the slightly misleading headline in Marketing Week about low confidence ( Marketing Week on Bellweather Report – Confidence.), because the budgets that have been set are more bullish than ursine.

The article goes on to say that, yes, they are spending less – again – but:
“Budgets for 2011 have been set higher than actual spend in 2010 on average, with 39% of respondents planning to increase spend against 22% that predict a decline. However, the growth is still very small compared to pre-2008 figures.” [Shore Qual’s bold]

Given the economic context, I’d say this shows a remarkably forward-looking perspective. Evidence perhaps that marketing’s long haul towards the centre of business planning has made some progress? It is only common sense, but a common sense that perhaps didn’t prevail in many previous tough economic periods.

Consumerism: same old values, slower pace?

Mark Littlewood and Roger Scruton with Evan Davies on Radio 4\’s \’Today\’

Caged beasts that we are

Some perspective on our sufferings from Mark Littlewood (“Even after the recession and the cuts, we are about as affluent today as we were in around 2006”) and Roger Scruton (“What we are calling ‘austerity‘ now is nothing compared with austerity in the past.”) We are living through a dip, but we’re still high on the historical prosperity chart. They both seem to agree that “there is too much whingeing and whining.”

Scruton also said: “If you arouse expectations, then people resent it if you take them away.” He was making a broad point about why people are doing all this complaining, when things, as he sees it at least, aren’t that bad. Of course, he has a point (though I don’t necessarily think people’s current unease about the economy in Britain can be written off quite so easily). But are we not all adjusting our expectations?

My experience is, from discussion groups around the country on personal finance and on government policy issues, that people are more pragmatic and realistic at the moment than Littlewood and Scruton give them credit for. Yes many people made some optimistic decisions before the crash, encouraged by the financial services industry, about what they could afford. A lot of us, enabled to be “King For A Day”, were kings and queens for three or four days (and minor royalty the rest of the time). But I think the general misery out there is exactly because a lot of people have taken it on board that they have to rein back. They’ll have a go at the government and the City, but don’t take that for mindless scapegoating: in the many discussions I have had around Britain, people have been very willing to admit their own faults and the need to change.

But they do need some help and positive encouragement to do so. The Big Society idea is what people often mention when asked what they think the government wants us all to be changing about our lives.  I’ve found it does resonate at a certain level, in that it points to a less materially-driven view of what is important in life – people get that. Its problem is that it has something to say about the value of local social engagement, there is a less clear narrative about what a “reined in”, post- maxing out the credit card, post-consumerist life should feel like now. Is it still OK to aspire to earn more, go after the things we want, to consume? Well, yes it is, it seems – just less than before. So is this a shift in values we are all expected to have now – or just the same values, at a slower pace? Talking to Britain, we’re mainly taking it to be the latter.

%d bloggers like this: