Call no man happy until he is a government statistic

20th November, 2010

The British government is apparently planning to measure our happiness. Stop smirking – this is serious business. Happiness is a big deal, especially among economists. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, has been studying the subject intensively. Two other Nobel laureate economists, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, have been working on measures of economic well-being for Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president. President Barack Obama has appointed happiness experts – Cass Sunstein, Betsey Stevenson and until recently Alan Krueger – as senior officials. David Cameron, if not leading the charge, is joining the in-crowd.
The irony is that in proposing to measure the national mood, Mr Cameron seems to have misread that mood. His core supporters on the centre-right are disinclined to give much weight to government-sponsored studies of well-being. The centre-left are instinctive supporters of the idea, but they are feeling a little grumpy right now and are unlikely to crack a smile at anything Mr Cameron proposes.
But what is Mr Cameron proposing? The Office for National Statistics won’t say much for now, although a statement refers to the need to look at “broader” and “more comprehensive” measures of well-being and progress, rather than focusing solely on gross domestic product, or GDP. Part of that might involve measuring “subjective well-being”.
The cynical response is that the government is about to dose us all up with Soma as we enter the brave new world of austerity Britain. The truth is more prosaic, and fortunately I speak Happyconomist so I can translate. The standard measure of economic activity is GDP, and the ONS is thinking about presenting some variations on the theme – which might include adjustments for environmental damage, time wasted in commuting, the value of “non-market work” – that is, doing the dishes – and the like. These GDP variants use the same framework but add extra elements. Alongside them the ONS might gather other data measuring health, inequality and that curious item, “subjective well-being”.
But what is this? One answer is that it’s what economists prefer to speak about instead of “happiness” – I once interviewed Prof Krueger on this and he firmly told me subjective well-being was his preferred term because “happiness sounds a bit frivolous”.
Subjective well-being is not, in fact, mysterious. The ONS is likely simply to add extra questions to its surveys. Some might ask about insomnia or anxiety, and are aimed to capture signs of depression; others might ask about mood: “how happy have you been feeling today – very happy, happy, neither happy nor unhappy, unhappy, or very unhappy?”.
Then there’s a staple question about overall life satisfaction, accurately spoofed by the journalist and statistical guru Michael Blastland as: “When all’s said and done, at the end of the day Brian, taking the rough with the smooth and all that, rate your well-being on a scale of one to 10.”
Professor Andrew Oswald, an economist and well-being expert at Warwick University, argues it would be good to try to ask about all these facets of happiness. Surely he is right: the cost of adding extra questions to a pre-existing survey is quite modest and the subject is clearly of interest.
Prof Oswald applauds Mr Cameron for this initiative. It would be curmudgeonly to disagree. And yet I wonder whether the entire project is being oversold. The Labour Force Survey in the UK, a major statistical exercise, already contains questions about anxiety and depression. Broader surveys of happiness are well-established. Data on life satisfaction are collected across the world by organisations such as Gallup. The Human Development Indicators have been collected every year since 1990, reflecting health and education as well as income. (Ireland ranks fifth in the world, suggesting there truly is more to life than money.)
There is no harm in doing a bit more. The symbolism of government involvement is clearly significant. But what signal are these governments intending to send? One reason for Mr Sarkozy’s enthusiasm is that the French spend most of their time not working, and this lowers France’s GDP. The country is likely to look better on most alternative indices.
There is nothing wrong with that, but here’s the rub: the ONS wants to avoid “focusing solely on gross domestic product”, but when was the last time any government focused solely on GDP? The French didn’t need Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to tell them to take life easy. Even the Anglo-Saxon countries fret at least as much about unemployment as they do about GDP growth, and with good reason. Happiness research has confirmed that unemployment is a particularly miserable experience. Yet jobs were on the political agenda long before happiness research existed.
Bhutan provides a particularly salutary lesson that there is a difference between gathering data on happiness, and making people happy. Bhutan is venerated by the more naive among happiness wonks for its world lead in measuring “gross national happiness”. The Nepali minority, many of whom, according to Human Rights Watch, have been stripped of Bhutanese citizenship and harassed out of the country over the years, may have seen these developments in happiness policy rather differently from the vantage point of refugee camps in Nepal.
I would not go as far as the late Sir John Cowperthwaite, financial secretary of Hong Kong in the 1960s, who refused to collect economic statistics lest it encourage Whitehall’s planners to meddle with Hong Kong’s success. But there is a lesson there. The ONS can and should collect data on happiness, but do not expect to feel a warm glow as a result.
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