No doubt spurred on by the findings of Professor Richard Layard that GDP is overrated as a gauge of a country’s well-being- Once an economy reaches an income per person of about $15,000 (measured at purchasing-power parity), economic growth ceases to add to happiness, he says- David Cameron has launched a quest to find a measure of well-being that can be used as an indicator of our national performance – and be used as a measure of the success of government policy. Economic growth, it is argued, is too narrow, and we need to think about other indicators. Cameron has insisted his £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness is not “woolly”.
He said economic growth remained the most “urgent priority” but he wanted a better measure of how the country was doing than GDP.
From April, the Office for National Statistics will ask people to rate their own well-being with the first official happiness index due in 2012. But before that it wants the public to give their views in a consultation.
So one can already spot a biggish problem. Governments only like measuring things if it reflects well on them and their policies. So, setting aside for a second the very real practical difficulties in measuring happiness there will be an absolute requirement to ensure that our happiness is seen to increase, year on year and for this to be linked to Government policy. If it doesn’t then the idea will be quickly dropped , or alternatively they will change the way happiness is measured to come up with the right results. Researchers at Bristol University have looked at the British Household Panel Survey. The Survey follows the same individuals over time – and claims to measure ‘life satisfaction’ before and after the birth of a child which takes place in year 0 in the graphs. What they clearly show is that individuals’ reported life satisfaction falls at birth (after rising during pregnancy) and does not return to its previous level at least for the first five years of the child’s life. Basically, having children makes people “worse off”. This finding is consistent with studies from other countries which find the same thing. However people’s reported life satisfaction may have fallen but how many of the parents surveyed would say that they regretted having children? Nor are they likely to think they would be better off or ‘happier’ if their children were taken away from them. You will also find that most parents reflecting on the early years of raising their children will tell you it was a positive and ‘happy’ experience. So, one conclusion is that questions about life satisfaction (and happiness) do not capture everything that matters and may in a sense serve to actually mislead. They certainly make it difficult to determine what should be done in policy terms to make things better for individuals who have very different ideas about what makes them happy. There is also the issue that happiness is a relative term- happy compared to who, or what?
How can you capture, credibly, in statistics, real levels of true happiness? Governments find it hard enough to measure schools performance or indeed public sector productivity- so how are they going to manage with something even more abstract?
One is reminded of the Quatrain attributed to Kingsley Amis-
‘Life is mainly toil and labour,
Two things see you through
Chortling when it hits your neighbour
Whingeing when its you’.