What's on England's Mind Today, Part 1 (National Happiness)

Britain will soon begin “measuring people’s psychological and environmental well-being” — i.e., their happiness. “British officials say there is still hesitation in some parts of Whitehall over going ahead with the programme during such difficult economic times,” reports The Guardian, “but [David] Cameron is said to want to place the eventual results at the heart of future government policy-making.” “David Cameron was very clear in opposition this would be what he would do and even in tough times it’s just as relevant an agenda,” says a Downing Street source. “The purpose of GDP is ultimately to help people lead more satisfactory lives and it is as important during a downturn as during a boom.” Nicolas Sarkozy, the?French president, announced plans to measure happiness and well-being last year in response to a call from Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen for “world leaders to move away from a purely economic concept of gross domestic product.” [%comments]


Happiness is non-quantifiable. Any results they get will be only representative of the relatively few aspects and definitions they focus on. There's also the problem of short-term vs. long-term happiness, how would they measure that? And which is more important? (Of course, importance here will again be subjective).

It would be fun to see this data in direct relation to specific experiences... Filing out tax forms - not happy, dealing with red-tape - not happy, worrying about regulations - not happy. I'd guess they'd soon find that the government which makes people the happiest is a very small government indeed. The kind of government that wouldn't attempt this kind of analysis.

William McCLain

There can be a lot of purpose and meaning behind this sort of analysis.

You can certainly make a reasonable case that all economics is ultimately subjective, as opposed to a cold and objective machine that works in a predictable fashion. That's not to say that there isn't a level of objectiveness in economic functions, but that when we look at economic indicators there is a lot of subjectivity of value hidden within them that's hard to distinguish.

Trying to distinguish the value-exchanges that occur in our economy outside the GDP-generating expenditure array could go a long way in helping us figure out exactly how balanced our economy is. It could also go a long way in helping us validate our various value-measures. Looking at the overall balance of our economy - particularly the balance between financial and fiscal value and intrinsic value - may provide important lessons in how to deal with economic corrections and downturns.

Obviously whenever you get into something like this you're dealing with a large margin of error. Valuing subjective qualities like well-being and happiness, as well as trying to attribute metaphysical value to the numerous non-financial exchanges that occur daily, is a tall order. There are, however, some examples worth looking at. Accountancy's principle of intangible assets to correct discrepancies in book value and market value involves assigning cash-value to things like branding, good will, and knowledge. Developing a mathematical model for trying to find some of these discrepancies and creating a base-value would be an interesting process.


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

If National Happiness were such an important goal, Britain should put Prozac in the water supply.

If dental caries merits Fluoridation of the water supply, could happiness be no less important? ...This is BIGGER THAN BRITISH TEETH and the famous toothy smile! It would also cost pennies per capita.

But then it would squelch a generation of great, depressed,self-destructive, self- loathing writers, singers and poets who don't want to go to rehab, no, no, no.

Eric M. Jones


"Happiness in non-quantifiable."

Really? You're serious? Let me count the ways...dude. Is clinical depression non-measurable too?

Can we really know anything?


Brett, you're right that happiness is a bit hard to measure. However, GDP is also fairly misleading. For example, if I swap some of the vegetables from my field for one of your chickens, that contributes nothing to GDP. If we sell them to each other, it does, but it is kind of hard to see how we are better off. I think it's worth trying to get a halfway respectable measure of well-being, because that is what actually matters. It is very well documented that, once essential needs and reasonable security are satisfied, level of affluence and happiness are essentially unrelated. And there are some features of what you would call 'big government' that vastly increase the sense of security - like a decent national health service, for example. I live in England, and I know if I get hit by a car I will get the best treatment money can buy for as long as I need it, and no-one will at any point ask me for a credit card or insurance details. I have known Americans who lived in dread of getting sick, especially if they lost their job (and health plan). This isn't a 'my misery is better than your misery' pitch; just saying that money in your pocket isn't everything, and you shouldn't judge government decisions on quantity ('smaller is better') but on quality. More good stuff is not the same as more bad stuff...


Alastair Herbert

Money may not be at the root of all evil but it's almost certainly not at the root of all happiness.

There are all sorts of quality of life issues that governments can affect. Some are obvious postives, like better infrastructure. (NYC highways like Broadway look developing world to us Brits) and some are negative postive; like easy and cheap access to dentists that prevent pain that might have happened. (Even though cosmetically our teeth remain in the same state as Broadway...).

Happiness measurements in the UK have consistently shown no correlation between increasing income and contentment. So what's the point in continuing with that as the sole arbiter of success?

The role of government is not to stop governing. So if it's about making people happier, which doesn't sound a bad idea, then why not try to measure it? I think businesses call it a balanced scorecard don't they?


Speaking as a Brit, this is entirely pointless - we are entirely sunk in gloom as a nation and can't see anything good about ourselves or our nation.

I blame the tabloid newspapers.

Just find the BBC news website, then look at the 'have your say' topics.

Something really bad must be happening next year as they've now staged a royal wedding to divert us.

Dr Shibley Rahman

Excellent post.

I am almost against the happiness policy because it has been advocated by the Coalition government, but this is indeed a very poor reason. My cynicism should not overcome what I feel is intuitively an inspiring idea.

What I feel we must avoid at all costs is an improving GDP in Britain, but people are miserable. In other words, we have 2 million unemployed, but because of -0.2% GDP we consider it a triumph.

Like most of your readers, I've blogged on it elsewhere


is my blog

and I recently like you posted on happiness, but not nearly with any of the authoritative evidence. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.


Here is my professional profile anyway, to demonstrate that I am happy, despite being a Company Director in England.


Best wishes

Dr Shibley Rahman