Are you happy?
Last month, the coalition government in Westminster announced plans to begin measuring the level of happiness among citizens. The standard gauge of the country’s success – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – is inadequate, we were told, and we should be looking also at people’s General Well-Being (GWB). The Office of National Statistics have been asked to come up with ways of assessing GWB in order that policymakers can gain a fuller picture of the state of the nation.
According to the Prime Minister, “Wellbeing 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 wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times”.
It is a little difficult to know how to react to this news. My first instinct is towards cynicism and suspicion of David Cameron’s “Big Society” waffle, but perhaps that is unfair. After all, if this is a genuine proposal, and if it is followed through with real changes in policy direction, then it potentially represents a radical change in the way that government works.
Up until this time, politics in this country has been led largely by the belief that what is good for the economy – for GDP – is inevitably good for the people. But even a cursory glance at reality shows this to be false.
For instance: a burglar is good for the economy, since he is likely to cause a rise in the sale of security equipment and replacement goods. Similarly, an oil spill can be good for GDP, as can many kinds of environmental degradation; but all are bad for people’s sense of wellbeing. On the other hand , a self-sufficient family farm is bad for the economy because the occupants buy fewer goods and pay less tax than most other citizens; but as far as GWB is concerned, they probably score very well indeed.
So the contradictions are clear; but what of Cameron’s plans to do something about them?
Since the idea was first mooted there has been mild criticism and gentle sneering from nearly all quarters. But that is probably to be expected, since nobody can yet know what the ramifications might be. Though the measurement of wellbeing is currently being explored in other Western countries, including Canada and France (under the guidance of Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen), the origin of the idea can in fact be traced back to the Kingdom of Bhutan, where “Gross National Happiness” has been taken into account since the 1970s as a way of safeguarding the country’s Buddhist culture and traditions, as well as its natural environment. Such foreign ideas make some people nervous.
On the right, the measurement of wellbeing has been described as “frothy” and “without substance” (which is just another way of saying that it can’t be counted out and stored in a vault).The Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips went further though, describing Cameron’s plans as “preposterous”. But that is surely as good a reason as any to think he might be on to something.
My own main concern is that I fear the proposal will be employed only selectively. The real lessons are unlikely to be learned.
There is a great deal of evidence now to suggest that reducing income inequality can increase general wellbeing in the population. But will the 23 millionaires in the current British cabinet be swayed by this evidence? I suspect not.
Equally, I don’t imagine they will have much sympathy for the argument that it is our wasteful, consumerist culture that is to blame for much of the stress and dissatisfaction that people do feel today. That is not the message they want to hear.
What I fear the government are looking for is an excuse. As they sit in Westminster cutting budgets and cutting jobs, the Conservatives want to be able to say to people, “Look, money doesn’t make you happy – your mother was right after all. So cheer up!”
On this one though I’m prepared to wait, and to give them the benefit of the doubt. There is something good at the heart of the plan, I just hope it is allowed to shine through.