England & Wales

Measuring Happiness


We blogged briefly on Monday about David Cameron’s plans to set up a Happiness index. As long ago as 2006 he was talking, as newly elected party leader, about the importance of happiness as a political goal, but many will be surprised to find the idea surviving the transition to government and to a harsher economic climate. It’s a brave move that is sure to attract fire from the left who will see it as bread and circuses and from the right who will see it as Notting Hill nonsense.

But it speaks to an important truth. Surely politics should be about improving people’s well-being, about making them happier?

In practice, however, things are a little more complicated.

Firstly, there’s a question about which forms of happiness are most relevant. Aristotle made a distinction between eudaimonia, the sustainable happiness of a life lived well and euphoria, the immediate feeling of pleasure. Many of the things we value and pursue in life do not seem to concern immediate pleasure. John Stuart Mill recognised this, arguing that happiness (or utility in his terms) is not an undifferentiated phenomena and cannot be reduced to hedonic sensation. There are higher and lower forms of happiness he argues: “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.

But if this is true and if, as Mill goes on to argue, happiness is best pursued indirectly through the achievement of other objectives it begs the question of whether happiness is, after all, useful as a political goal.

Secondly, as the psychologist Dan Gilbert has argued we’re not always very good at assessing our own happiness and we’re certainly not very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future.   We tend to over privilege how we feel right now and down play how we will feel in the future. (Economists call this ‘time discounting’ but it’s a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has ever over ordered in a restaurant because they were really hungry right now)..

If we want to know about people’s happiness levels then we may be better off asking them about proxy measures: the degree of control they feel they have over their lives or the quality of their interpersonal relationships

In policy terms the consequence of this is to turn our focus away from happiness per se and on to the other goals that might make people happy, but this requires a series of political judgments about what those goals are or should be.

Thirdly, there’s a vital question about how we seek to increase happiness. Are we concerned with the total mean happiness which may involve some very happy people and some utterly miserable people or even a few very, very happy people and a lot of fairly miserable people, or are we trying to increase the overall mode happiness so that most people are quite happy? Again this is a political judgement.

Local authorities will find themselves at the sharp end of these questions, as they re-design service delivery. Trying to gauge the impact of their decisions on the well-being of their communities they will need to think both about what happiness is, who they need to make happier and how they will measure this.

Details of the Prime Minister’s happiness index are still vague, but as it is designed and delivered we will be arguing that it’s essential that its data can be broken down to a local level so that councils and councillors can make the best use of it.