Moving from resolution to solution
2 Jan 2024
On 30th December, Nicholas Kristof published his annual review in the New York Times. Whilst acknowledging that 2023 was "terrible", he also dubbed it "maybe the best yet for humanity", an assertion many would find surprising, if not shocking. To support it, Kristof listed major achievements in the fields of health and poverty reduction. In fairness, these were set against the backdrop of atrocity, natural disaster and the accelerated decline of our planet, but his punchline was that "despair is paralysing not empowering". Indeed, if we are to make progress as a species, it is essential to believe that improvement is a realistic possibility. Resilience is crucial, and optimism is a critical component of a human being's ability to bounce back. We must be positive in order to cope well, to learn and grow, and to put things right.
Who could argue with that? Well, the UK Government apparently. At the end of 2023, we learned that the What Works Wellbeing Unit – unofficially entitled the Government's "happiness unit" – is to be closed down. Set up by David Cameron 10 years ago, this essentially has served two purposes. First, it tracks national wellbeing with a view to understanding what policy decisions need to be made. Then, on the basis of these findings, it identifies what measures need to be implemented to enhance wellbeing across the country. Can it be a good idea to close this at the beginning of an election year? The decision came at a time when the unit's own figures indicate that there has been a sharp decline in our wellbeing post-Covid. What could have prompted this decision? Well, a lack of funding for one. But more cynically, you could argue that a decline in wellbeing doesn't look good for the Government, at a time when it needs all the help it can get.
As part of a 12-year study of resilience, we conducted a major survey in the fourth quarter of 2023 with local authorities, the people charged with implementing the Government’s policies on the ground. Using our proprietary measure of resilience, the RQ, we invited local government workers to measure their current levels of resilience. Around 1,500 completed the questionnaire in total and the results demonstrate unequivocally that overall RQ, as well as its five component parts (optimism; solution orientation; individual accountability; openness and flexibility; and managing stress and anxiety) have all steadily declined over the last 12 years. Tragically, the resilience levels among this group are lower now than they were at the peak of Covid. Amid our growing mental health crisis, it is of vital importance that we take measures now to boost our wellbeing, happiness and resilience. So regardless of what you think of New Year's resolutions, the best thing you can do for the coming year and the longer term is to be determined to work on your own mental health, and to help support that of the people around you. Reframing your thinking is key. You may not be able to alter events, but you can affect the way you interpret and respond to them. Be as optimistic as you can in the circumstances, and try to influence positively what happens next. Hope is the opposite of despair. And hope is empowering.