Sex, shopping and the statistics of happiness

10th March, 2012

“How satisfied are you with your life these days?”

Beg pardon?

On a scale of 0-10. I’m reading a question from this new Office for National Statistics report on happiness. Here’s another one: “How happy did you feel yesterday?” On a scale of 0-10.

This isn’t that economics-of-happiness nonsense is it?

It is indeed. Hm. “How anxious did you feel yesterday?”

On a scale of 0-10?


I wasn’t feeling anxious yesterday but I am now, thank you for asking. How many questions are you planning to throw at me?

Only four. This is the last one. “To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?”

Right. And the answers are supposed to revolutionise economic policy and pave the way for an alternative to gross domestic product as a measure of national wellbeing? I won’t hold my breath.

I think you’re expecting a bit much. You haven’t even answered the questions yet.

I don’t mean my answers specifically. I mean, our answers in general, however many people they’ve asked.

Eighty thousand.

Eighty thousand, fine. They’ve spent however many millions of pounds going around the country asking 80,000 people if they felt happy yesterday. This is supposed to be some transformative statistical exercise, right? Let me ask you a question: to what extent do you feel the things the government is doing to measure happiness are worthwhile?

On a scale of 0-10?

Oh, shut up.

I’d give it about a 4 out of 10. I suspect it will be only faintly useful but I also suspect the cost of doing this is modest. Remember, the ONS went to a huge amount of time and trouble to interview a suitable sample of 80,000 people but they were going to do it anyway. Adding an extra four questions can’t have broken the bank.

What have we learnt, then, from this cheap and cheerful exercise?

Not a lot, yet, because so far the ONS hasn’t produced a detailed statistical analysis. We know that Londoners are the most anxious people in the country and that the Northern Irish are the most satisfied with their lives by the three measures on offer. Women are more content than men. The middle-aged are less happy, more anxious and less likely to consider their existence worthwhile.

Is any of this a surprise?

I didn’t know the Northern Irish were so delighted with life, but previous work on life satisfaction has counselled against being middle-aged or male, so this isn’t new.

What else do we already know about happiness, other than money not buying it?

Actually, one thing we do know about happiness is that money does buy it. Take any society and the rich will be happier than the poor; they will be more likely to rate their lives as “going very well” .

I was sure the happiness research said money doesn’t buy happiness.

You’re thinking of the Easterlin Paradox. The economist Richard Easterlin, in the 1970s, couldn’t find evidence that societies as a whole got richer as they got happier. But the reason this is a paradox is because richer individuals do tend to be happier than poorer ones. The societal half of the Easterlin Paradox is a matter of active debate right now .

Thanks to David Cameron and the ONS.

Well, right now it’s thanks to surveys being conducted by the likes of Gallup. But I can imagine the ONS effort will come in handy eventually .

But you obviously feel the ONS could do better.

I’d like to see deeper questions along the lines of those asked by Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman.

Those names sound familiar.

One is the chairman of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. The other has a Nobel Prize for economics. But before Mr Krueger’s political appointment, he and Mr Kahneman were using an approach that produces a lot more detail about the kinds of activities that make people unhappy, such as commuting or going to meetings.

I see. Any gems from this line of research?

Sex is fun, shopping is annoying and people like lunch and spending time with other people . And it’s been nice spending time with you. Aren’t you happy we talked?

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