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Happiness not a bad starting point for analysis of policy. The problem is the policy

Posted on 15 November 2010 | 9:11am

I am not opposed to the idea, splashed across the Guardian, of including a measurement of happiness and well-being in any assessment of how well or otherwise the country and its families are doing.

Given the subjectivity inevitably involved in such an assessment, it will not be straight-forward to agree on how the analysis is made. But it should not be impossible, and in deciding what factors to take into account, we might actually get a decent debate going about what makes people happy.

David Cameron appears to be saying that it is not just about the economy, stupid. Before the election he said general well-being was also about the environment, about culture, and about relationships. Not a bad start.

What is clear is that the government is floating this idea at a time of major risk. Economic uncertainty produces individual uncertainty which can reduce happiness. Cuts in public services will lead to people not getting the care or benefits they need, which won’t do much for their happiness. Nor will the extra homelessness likely as a result of some of the housing and benefit changes announced in the CSR. And the predictions of a rise in crime won’t help much either, if borne out by post-cuts reality. As for Cameron’s big three, he seems to have lost the passion for the environment on display when he first became leader, culture is going to take a huge whack as a result of the spending review and relationships will be put under strain as jobs are lost and living standards fall for so many of our people.

There may also be a case for including the Clegg factor in any index of happiness. I meet so many people who voted Lib Dem and say they’re not happy about it now.

But as I say up top, I do not think it is a bad idea. The key to it will be who makes the assessment and how. It cannot be left to government itself. The Office of National Statistics is a starting point but not on its own enough.

And with so many in the mental health services fearing the impact of cuts, might I suggest that some of those cut are put onto the Happiness Team.

  • Robert Jackson

    Stale bread and circuses?

  • Carl Mason

    Problem is it is just another piece of what I think you call spinology. You say the government can’t make the assessment. But this one will. and get away with it because the press are so supine and the opposition barely alive it would seem.

  • Chris Teale

    I am so so so so so happy. I am a Sunderland fan. Thanks for you comments last night on twitter. Glad you enjoyed it. You can come again and be mascot. Also makes me happy to think we made so many other people happy because real football fans really don’t like Chelsea

  • Julia Styles

    Is Ken Dodd still going? He could go in the Cabinet as happiness czar. Happiness, happiness … remember it?

  • Olli Issakainen

    Happiness is hard to achieve, hard to define. According to US´s Founding Fathers, however, all humans have a self-evident right to pursue happiness.
    Socrates asked what makes us happy? He believed that only people with self-knowledge could find happiness. You cannot find it from physical or external conditions such as pleasure or wealth or power. But from life that is right for your soul. Virtue is needed.
    British economist Richard Layard is famous for his Happiness economics. This starts from an argument that the income is not a good approximation for happiness.
    Social comparisions, adaptation and changing tastes must also be taken into consideration.
    Happiness derives also from relative income as well absolute income. Ideas what is sufficient also grow. And individual preferences are not constant.
    Geoff Mulgan has stated that this century is the century of the politics of well-being. Western societies will turn attention to higher transcendent goods like inner peace.
    It has been said that in the year 1966 people in Finland were at their happiest. Most of the material goods were already available, but the bad things created by the progress were not yet visible then.
    In the West people nowadays have a lot of wealth, but are not happy. Unhappiness seems to be the ultimate luxury.

  • Dave Simons

    I think some of these Coalition politicians – Cameron and Clegg in particular – need to be taken to one side and reminded that the world really did not begin when they were born. They keep thinking up or discovering old ideas and serving them up as if they’ve never been thought of before – didn’t Jeremy Bentham have something to say about ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’?. Isn’t Cameron’s reference to ‘General Well-Being’ just the same idea repackaged? A lot gets said about declining standards in Comprehensive Schools, but these people who have had the most expensive private education in the UK seem to know little of what they should know. Cameron’s comment about Great Britain being the US’s ‘junior partner’ in 1940 is a good example – Great Britain wasn’t a ‘junior partner’ in 1945 at Yalta, let alone in 1940 when the US wasn’t even in the war.
    There is no necessary correlation between happiness and whatever government is in office or how well-off people are. A lot of young people became alienated, disaffected and unhappy during the latter 1960s, even though the post-war long boom was being maintained (with a few creaks)and there were such things as student grants and almost full employment. I personally was relatively happy during the 1980s even though I hated everything about a government which reintroduced old-fashioned military confict and 1930s unemployment levels. I dread to think what the Coalition will be saying about itself if the results of a national questionnaire turn out to be positive. Surely they won’t claim credit, surely…?

  • Billy Blofeld

    Cameron’s Happiness Index is a total car crash of a policy.

    It is making me less happy already: <

  • Yiannaki Loizou

    On surveying societal well-being, I’ve just been reading about a piece of research in the States that shows the effects of money on happiness, conducted by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Happiness is evolution’s way of recognising the utility of well-being and survival in an individual and the goal of any societal policy (at least usually) is to maximise it in the most efficient way for as many individuals as possible, thus creating a happy society. As I understand it, disagreements on government policy are usually about the best way to achieve this, which is where we all have differences of opinion. (We can ignore the fact that such an altruistic society is likely to simply be an evolutionary stable strategy that actually serves the selfish interests of genes and individuals because it doesn’t change the fact we at least act on the basis of this illusion.)

    Now the research suggest that there are huge increases in happiness for people who vault incrementally towards a middle-class income of between $40,000 to $70,000 (in UK terms £24,000 up to about £43,000). Once that level is reached, increases in wealth generate only negligible rises in happiness and well-being. So wealth accumulated by and allocated to individuals beyond these amounts reflects money badly wasted in terms of improving societal well-being and happiness. (Why? The value of the money would be worth more in terms of contribution to happiness transferred to individuals who had not reached those income brackets, because improvements in an individual’s happiness is not in direct linear proportionality to money but rather it fades away the further up the cash chain you go beyond the amounts mentioned above).

    Therefore, to maximise well being most efficiently across the whole of society, the research leaves no doubt that the most efficient policy that produces the greatest net utility of happiness and well-being would be to close the gap between low incomes to middle incomes as far as possible and for as many people as possible (allowing for the greatest ratio of net gains in happiness and well being vs money). To conclude, the research shows that, where there is a finite amount of money and resources to allocate in a society, allowing increases for the richer few beyond a middle bracket is a waste of such resources as it does not proportionally increase happiness and well-being to the same extent as would occur allocating the same such resources on individuals further down the ladder.

    Given the expressed desire to measure well-being and what this research indicates, I wonder whether such findings will be influencing how the government views the distribution of resources across society.

  • Jenny

    I agree – great idea – supported by 81% of Brits apparently who believe the Government should prioritise creating happiness over creating wealth, according to the New Economics Foundation (nef).

    The good news for David Cameron is that nef have brought together research from 400 scientists worldwide to come up with the equivalent of “5 a day” for well-being. They are:

    • Connect with the people around you
    • Be active
    • Take notice – be curious and aware of the world around you
    • Keep learning – try something new
    • Give – do something nice for a friend or a stranger

    So DC was on the right track. And wellbeing can surely be achieved by each of us at minimum cost – keeping happy the 81% of us who prioritise well-being whilst cutting costs for the rest. Perfect!

    The bad news (for DC and indeed all of us) is that, as with any home or self-improvement project, it’s probably going to be a bit more complicated and costly than it first looked.

    The nef work was part of a wider project led by Prof Cary Cooper. He took a cradle-to-grave look at scientifically proven causes of mental ill-health. Some of them, in no particular order: poor housing, poor diet, being a looked after child, debt, work stresses, poor education, learning difficulties, worklessness, crime, stigma and discrimination, isolation, poor parenting skills, drug and alcohol dependency … hmm maybe government does have a role after all.

    nef can help with the objective outcome measures too – their National Accounts of Wellbeing measure personal and social wellbeing in 22 European countries. Denmark came top – in the UK older people scored highly, but young people had the lowest levels of trust and belonging anywhere in Europe which doesn’t bode well for the future.

    Who financed all this good work? The Government Office for Science on behalf of the last government. As Dave said let’s not reinvent the wheel.

    See and check your wellbeing on

  • Anna

    I grew up poor during the immediate post-war years of austerity. I know what it is to be cold and, though we never went hungry, I know what it is to eat boring food and wear hand-me-downs. I don’t regret those experiences of mild hardship, as it makes me appreciate my good fortune every day. What makes me happy? Gratitude that I live in a stable country – not perfect, I agree – but it’s not Somalia; gratitude that my husband’s ill-health is managed by the excellent NHS (three cheers for Nye and Labour); gratitude for a good education and a comfortable, though not luxurious, retirement; gratitude for a loving family and good friends; gratitude, above all, that I was taught to take delight in simple things and to appreciate beauty. Driving back from the shops today, I stopped the car just to look at the afternoon sunlight on the trees and felt my heart lift. Didn’t cost a penny!

    Money isn’t everything, but those who say it doesn’t matter have never been without it. So I’m happy that I have enough to live comfortably, to be warm, to eat well and to enjoy small pleasures like a meal out or a new book and I’m very happy, that, unlike the generation after me that have known nothing but prosperity and excess, I know how lucky I really am.

  • David Kingston

    Has anyone else noticed that the Condems bang on about localism but want to centralise school budgets? Or are the civil servants taking control as they always try to do? In this case a problem is identified and the civil service approach is that only bureaucrats can solve it as part of their career development program.

  • toni

    Well, I’ve been as miserable as sin since this lot took over, and nothing Dave says or does for the next four plus years is likely to make me smile, but have to say that I’ve laughed all evening reading the scathing and cynical responses to the ‘happiness measurement’ articles posted on ConHome and Spectator blogs, and at the Guardian there are hundreds of comments witty enough to cheer us all up for an hour or two.

  • Sarah Dodds

    I am fascinated by all of this. I decided to ask my 4 year old daughter what makes her happy, as I find children have a natural gut instinct as to what is really of worth.
    Her response?
    “Cheese on toast.”

  • EmmaJones

    Hooray for people like Michael McIntyre who keep this laughing!

  • Jenny

    Royal wedding. Quick win for David Cameron’s happiness monitoring project?

  • Su Maddock

    Helping people to regain control over their lives through a recovery process is critical to anyone in transition or living through mental distress- we are discussing how to Mental Health Services can incorporate a recovery approach- on the 30th November in NESTA at 4.30pm – Su Maddock author of ‘ Recovery Begins with Hope’. Open to all and free to anyone wanting to improve mental health services by involving service users.

  • Katharine Thurgood

    I am sorry to say that I am one of the many people in the U.K right now who feel very anxious about the future. As someone who has mental health problems I have valued the support of psychiatric services and a charity called Framework. In view of the fact that cuts are proposed to these services I wonder what the future holds. There is a high level of silent suffering in this country among people who are largely invisible. Feeling that I was in a position of having good mental health at the time I arranged to see Kennith Clarke in his surgery. I was under the impression that as my elected represetative he would understand and support my concerns. I left feeling that I had spoken to the wrong person and that there was nothing he could do about cuts to Framework because this was the county councils job. I utterly failed to express the fears that I have about ending up back on a psychiatric ward through lack of support. Nor did I manage to get across that in my mind the argument for retaining these services is an ethical one. I would welcome the question “How happy are you” if I thought someone would listen to my answer.