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Salzburg Trilogue: Can psychology guide politics?

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There was a strange consensus at the Salzburg Trilogue. On the one hand, there were all these high-level people – including leaders of such symbols of international capitalism as the World Trade Organization and the European Union – making very determined pleas for social equity and environmental sustainability. On the other, just about everyone was convinced that countries would remain too divided to come to any kind of coherent action on these issues.

In the words of one participant: “We can’t keep on consuming at the level of lifestyle that the U.S. has prioritized over the last 25 years and everyone – from China to Dubai – is trying to emulate today.” It was “completely and utterly mad” and “a guaranteed way of hitting the concrete wall.”

But there was hope in one the unlikelier subjects of conversation: the surprising amount of discussion given to psychological studies into what makes us tick. Whatever our cultural, national or other differences, human beings are all united by the common wiring of their brains and their fundamental psychic being. Years of psychological research have brought mounting evidence that human beings are not inherently programmed for endless economic growth. One participant said the idea of homo economicus – purely selfish, materialistic, “utility-maximizers” – was false.

One participant said research shows that pure hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure, is an important driver but one whose impact declines as we satisfy that urge. We habituate to it. He said there are other important drivers such as “engagement” (single-minded dedication to what we do best, such as with artists or sportsmen) and “service” (of a higher cause, perhaps a religion or country). But he stressed especially the driver that is the desire for human relationships, connection and acceptance, which does not lead to habituation but which can instead bring lasting satisfaction and peace.

This would suggest that people can live happy lives without being dominated by the remorseless pursuit of money. Once a society has brought to its citizens a basal level of material well-being that is environmentally sustainable (basic food, clothing, shelter), it should be possible for many people to live happily if they are actively living for and with their friends, families and communities.

These ideas are also, to some extent, penetrating politics. In his pre-meeting background paper, Mzukisi Qobo of the South African Institute of International Affairs cites some of the recent work in this area. In particular, he refers to the report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The report, produced under the chairmanship of famed economist Joseph Stiglitz and commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, notably argues that GDP is an inadequate measure of progress and that general “well-being” should be considered. The works of Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom) and Jeremy Rifkin (The European Dream) on these themes were also discussed by the participants.

These kinds of arguments are increasingly mainstream. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a kind of official think-tank for rich nations, has developed a “better life index” which lets individuals rank countries according to their own subjective preference. The Himalayan nation of Bhutan has gone so far to create the concept of “gross national happiness” as a measure of the country’s success. This may seem extreme, but the concept is being increasingly studied in universities across the world. We could be seeing the skepticism and rationalism of science beginning to penetrate politics.

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Craig James Willy Twitter: craigjameswillyCraig James

I am a Brussels-based European politics blogger and a journalist for the multinational EU news site EurActiv, covering a wide range of policy areas. I was born and raised in France but brought up by Anglo-American parents. I studied at Liverpool and the London School of Economics and have worked in both the US Congress and the European Parliament. I am currently involved in numerous online news and social media projects including Future Challenges, the EU blog aggregator and my own personal European affairs blog Letters from Europe. My interests include reading, writing, history, politics, old and new media, European affairs, transatlantic relations, US and French politics, European Muslims, migration and minority rights, beer, traveling, dogs and dinosaurs. I speak English, French, Spanish and Italian (in that order) and love to meet people in person and across the net. Don't hesitate to contact me if you want to discuss projects, collaboration on blogs (guest posts, retakes..), writing for your publication or want advice on EU affairs, social media or life in Europe and Brussels!