development lifestyle politics

Britain announces a happiness index

Where Bhutan leads, the world follows. Well, sort of. The mountain kingdom was the first to start measuring Gross National Happiness, and yesterday the British government said it was going to start gauging public wellbeing alongside more traditional metrics like GDP. President Sarkozy has been working with Joseph Stiglitz on this in France, and Canada is also considering it.

We need to measure wellbeing because GDP only goes so far in telling us how we’re doing as a society. It’s a blunt instrument that tells us about quantity and not quality. The quarterly growth figures tell us whether the economy is bigger, but not if it’s better. The jury’s still out on it, but the BP oil spill may have been good for US GDP for example, which is ridiculous. If we all took up smoking, GDP would report that as a good thing, in both sales of cigarettes and programmes to help us quit.

It’s not easy to measure happiness. The easiest way is just to ask people to rate their happiness levels on a scale of one to ten. Ask enough people, and you’ll have enough to get an overall mood rather than a ratio of people having bad days. You can get more sophisticated measures by asking a broader set of questions about how optimistic people feel, whether they trust their neighbours, and how satisfied they are with their health, their income and their relationships. The Office of National Statistics will be working out how to take those measurements in the coming months.

We’ve known for a few years that David Cameron believes in broader metrics than GDP. I’ve heard him quote JFK on it and mention Richard Layard’s book Happiness: Lessons in a new science. It’s still great to hear that it’s happening.

For more, see the New Economics Foundation’s centre for wellbeing, which has been campaigning for this for years and deserves a lot of credit in getting us this far. No doubt the government’s version will be different, but here’s nef’s wellbeing profile for the UK as an example of how it can be done, taken from their national accounts of wellbeing. (Grey line shows EU average, blue line is UK)

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