Trust in our institutions is in short supply, but it’s crucial to a happy, healthy society. How can we rebuild it?
Mel Young: Trust is such an important part of life. Who do we trust? Do we trust what the media tell us? Do we trust politicians? Do we trust the police? Do we trust the neighbours? In the past, a number of scholars have said that creating a happiness index was a much better way for society to measure its performance rather than using the blunt instrument of GDP. A central plank of that index was trust. People would be asked if they were more trusting in the month compared with the month before. I always thought this was a fascinating way of looking at things and much more insightful than the current ways we have of measurement.
At the moment, all across the world, people seem to be less trusting of institutions than ever before which means, then, that we are therefore less happy which has to be bad news. We need to build trust again in society which means we need to examine our relationship with the key institutions which form the foundations of our society.
Alexandra Matthews: The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that trust is the single most important factor in a happy, healthy society. If you think about East Germany or the Soviet Union, spying and informing were rife and people couldn’t even trust their children not to inform on them – and those societies collapsed, at least partly because people were so unhappy. So yes, I completely agree with you – trust is crucial. Unfortunately, as you say, trust in institutions is crumbling. We’re in the UK and I think we could both reel off a list of institutions in which public trust is diminishing. The police is an example – last year a young woman was kidnapped by a police officer in London and murdered. She was walking down a road I know well and indeed have walked down myself – and in her shoes, I would have done exactly as she did when she was ‘arrested’ by this man. That makes me trust the police less, particularly if I were to be alone in the dark, which in turn makes me less likely to go out at night – and that affects my quality of life. My point is that my trust in the police is low, and that affects my happiness.
In a new ism, I think trust would have to be the foundation of everything. How can institutions be reformed so that we, the public, can trust them again? Is it a matter of starting over and building them from the ground up? In the past we have written a blog about trust and communities – would our institutions have to be more focused on grass-roots and communities? What do you think?
MY: The story about the police in London is awful and it is easy to see how trust in the police is eroded completely as a result. You ask good questions about how to rebuild trust and it is not easy. I think trust has to be earned. It is about our behaviours and how honest and open we are with each other. So, the police in London have some way to go. What is so damaging for some older institutions is that it may have taken decades to build trust and this can be shattered in minutes and then take years to rebuild. In the meantime, real damage has been done to everyone’s collective happiness as you point out in your police example. We do need to have institutions and some framework for society otherwise we just have anarchy or the survival of the fittest. We have moved on from that ancient concept and we want to create inclusive and safe societies. Institutions have to be respected and relevant to people.
Politicians have a role to play as leaders. They have seriously let people down recently in the UK not only because they have broken their own rules but because they have lied about it. It’s the lies more than anything which has damaged trust. Many people now say that they don’t trust a word any politician says and given that they are supposed to be running the country that is hugely damaging for democracy as a whole.
AM: It’s pretty depressing isn’t it. Our knee-jerk reaction is to get rid of the people at the top and often this is an important first step; I (and this is my personal opinion!) certainly think that our government would be better if the man in charge was forced to go. But they need to be reformed both ways – from the top down and the bottom up. The issues are deeply engrained and getting a new boss isn’t going to make these racist, misogynist police officers any less racist or misogynist. If we are to trust these institutions – whether that’s the police, the government, the media – it has to be proven to us that they are acting in our best interests, and my instinct is that that means we almost have to start over and rethink these concepts which were created for a different time. And yes, that will be extremely difficult, but I think it’s probably worth it in the long run.
MY: I hear your frustrations which are very real. I think what we are trying to do at The New Ism is to try and imagine a society that is run in a good way and which ties all the different strands of life together. It might be a type of naive utopia if you like, but if we can create something in theory that holds together, then we can go back and begin to reform the way society is organised. So, we might be looking at closing down some institutions completely, reforming others, creating new ones and so on. We need to build trust from the bottom up, but we need to create a vision of what society looks like and get everyone to buy into it. At the moment we don’t seem to have a shared vision that would create collective happiness: we seem to be mired in angst and depression!
AM: We need to find a way to harness that collective angst and depression to forge ahead with a vision for collective happiness and wellbeing!
This is something that we definitely need to discuss on The New Ism with our guests. Trust in our institutions is fundamental to happiness and wellbeing, both of people and the planet, so it will play a fundamental part in a new ism. It’s thorny and, as always, there aren’t any easy answers, but it’s fascinating and will certainly make for some great discussions!