As the burghers of Blackpool will tell you through gritted teeth, in a competition there are always more losers than winners. That’s why lotteries make money.
An intelligent person with the remotest grasp of the laws of probability will rapidly conclude that you can’t count on luck. But there’s something in human nature that drives many of us on towards the next prize – wealth, promotion, or success in sport or the arts. Being an also-ran just isn’t good enough.
Last week I did a series of interviews in a former mining town in northern England. What came across was a deep-seated concern that local people had stopped driving on. One referred to a ‘worrying lack of aspiration’. Another talked about ‘low ambition’. Another questioned whether there was much incentive for people to get qualifications and apply for jobs that would only make a marginal difference to their quality of life.
It’s an old chestnut that those who expect nothing are happiest, because they’ll never be disappointed. Yet there’s also a logic to it that must be addressed if we’re to make a difference in areas we label as disadvantaged.
A nation of go-getting entrepreneurs, high-achieving students and management Titans might be an appealing concept to the writers of white papers and regional economic strategies, but it bears little relation to the reality of a society that remains wedded to pyramidal hierarchies where the many remain the political, economic and social fodder of the few. You don’t have to travel far from the top of the pyramid to find those who are dissatisfied with their lot, who think of themselves as life’s losers.
This is why the debate about wellbeing is a vital one. Not because it points us towards a new opiate of the people (though you have to wonder why some politicians have got so excited), but because it offers a critique that challenges a competitiveness-driven approach to the economy.
Ideas such as time banks have demonstrated that you needn’t win the economic lottery to take part in activities that generate value and meaning, not just for the participants but for the community at large. We tap into the value of people’s lives by engaging seriously with what they have to offer, not by dangling before them prizes that probability tells you they won’t win.
Julian Dobson, New Start Online magazine