There seems to be a trend emerging across western nations tied to measuring happiness. The latest country to join the parade? The UK! The Associated Press’ article, Get Happy! UK government to measure well-being, reports that “British officials said Monday they will start measuring national happiness in addition to gauging more traditional data like income levels and fear of violent crime. The new plan makes good on a campaign pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised during the general election earlier this year to measure subjective levels of well-being when the government is collecting citizen data.”
Where is this turn to measuring happiness and well-being coming from? In a recent interview, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says interest in what drives well-being is exploding worldwide now that economists have gotten involved.
According to Herald De Paris, “[t]he World Bank, European Commission, United Nations, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have all made the same commitment,” that the UK is not the first. Well, it’s not the first country, either. That distinction goes to the tiny Himalyan country of Bhutan who has been measuring Gross National Happiness for a few years, now.
More recently, French president, Nikoas Sarkozy, instituted the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress comprised of an impressive cast of characters, including Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Bina Agarwal and Kenneth Arrow, among them. In their Report, the authors assert “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being. And measures of well-being should be put in a context of sustainability” (emphasis theirs). The report goes on to say that this unhealthy fixation on growing the GDP does not take into account important factors regarding people’s lives.
Britain’s turn to measuring happiness, or well-being, has been on the radar for a few years yet. David Cameron actually proposed this measure in his 2006 platform. In a recent talk at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference, he stated:
“Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.”
Right – we’ve all heard the adage that money doesn’t buy happiness.
But pinning down what, exactly, is happiness has been elusive.What kinds of things indicate well-being, or happiness? The French survey asks about vacations, debt repayment, the annoyance level of neighbors. The American Gallup survey inquires about six major areas: life evaluation , emotional health , work environment , physical health , healthy behaviors , and access to basic necessities.
In 1974, Richard Easterlin published a report, Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence. In his report, he found that within countries, the rich tended to report greater happiness than the poor and across countries, there is not much variation in total overall well-being. But general well-being has not risen since the first studies in the U.S., U.K. and other countries in the 1950’s despite the economic growth experienced since then. Known as the Easterlin Paradox, the theory in happiness economics points to the need for government to focus not simply on the growth of GDP, but on increasing life satisfaction. This phenomenon is nicely laid out in the Freakonomics Blog on the NYT website.
Another work by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, found that the income gap within a country is a strong indicator of a country’s well-being, that the greater the inequality, the greater the social issues (increasing income disparity sees corresponding spikes in homicide, obesity, drug use, mental illness, anxiety, teenage pregnancies, high school dropouts). The accompanying website, The Equality Trust, continues this conversation with blogs and community pages, among other resources.
So what is happiness or well-being? and How does one (much less a government) go about measuring happiness?