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Is Cameron's Happiness Index: Brave Or Barking Mad?

06/01/2011 16:23 | Updated 22 May 2015

Aaaaah... David Cameron wants to know how happy we are! Just like your average concerned dad, he wants (at a cost of £2m) to find out how we're feeling about life. The measure of our nation's success, he says, is not only about its GDP – it's also about our quality of life. And in order to improve upon it, he first needs to gauge where we all are right now in the happy stakes.

Three words spring to mind: brave, barking and mad.

Cynics have been chucking about words such as "woolly", "impractical" and "airy fairy", not to mention suggesting it's a smokescreen to distract from all the spending cuts and changes to benefits.

Now, I'm not against the idea of it – in a way it's applause worthy to consider the success of the country using a yardstick other than cold, hard GDP. But what is Cameron expecting to find, and is he prepared for it? More to the point, are we? When the results come out in 2012, will any of us really want to see, in black and white, just how miserable we all are?

Shadow Cabinet Minster Liam Byrne said: "It is a great irony that a government doing so much to spread pessimism...is going to start measuring wellbeing." You can't argue with that really can you? Even if they did inherit the problems they're now trying to sort out, we have massive unemployment, hundreds of thousands of redundancies in the public sector, slashes in benefits and funding, sky high education fees, long NHS lists... oh, and banks that are still paying huge bonuses and not sticking to their side of the deal. I could carry on but it makes me feel a bit depressed.

Cameron is not the first political leader to entertain the notion of course. Bhutan has been using its Gross National Happiness index for decades and French president Nicolas Sarkozy last year said that GDP alone was insufficient and the people's wellbeing should also be quantified. Even Tony Blair tickled the underbelly of the idea when he considered life satisfaction seminars – but he dropped it when he decided that fish was just too slippery.

Cameron is pushing ahead though, despite the taunts and jeers of his critics, and despite the fact that internet message boards are littered with scathing comments. I wonder if he caught this one by HW [my abbreviation]:

"Will he be fulfilled when a million plus of us march up Whitehall, occupy parliament and and all government buildings? All on the day of the royal wedding... sweet dreams 'Dave'..."

Crikey. Don't worry Kate, I'm sure it won't happen. Everyone will be too busy working the bank holiday trying to keep their job.

First task for the Office for National Statistics is to find out what we all value most (using a voluntary survey on their website) and the results will help them devise the measures they'll then use to gauge our wellbeing. Nice and simple, with little tick boxes, it asks participants to rate by importance issues such as income, distribution of wealth, health, education, crime, relationships with friends and family and the environment.

Well that's flawed from the start! The people least satisfied with life are so incensed that Cameron's even doing this, they're more likely to pick up their keyboard and whack him over the head with it than spend the 10 minutes it takes to contribute their opinions on what would make for a happier country. I bet HW hasn't done it.

The insane difficulty of defining happiness is unlikely to be helped by asking us to define it ourselves because we don't even know what would make us happy, apparently. We might think pots of cash would do it, but statistics tell us that after a certain amount of earnings, happiness levels off. Studies actually show that after an average income of £10,000 per capita, richer nations are no happier than poorer ones. If you think having children makes you happy, wrong! Research tells us the opposite is true. Married people are happier than unmarried people – but only if their partner is not neurotic (a trait associated with anxiousness and depression). We might think we all want loads of free time, but science says that overworked people are happier than underworked people. It's all about balance of course.

I don't know. As much as I like the idealistic notion of a government being concerned about our wellbeing and happiness, I keep coming back to the fact that it seems obvious what they should be doing and what we should be doing. It stands to reason that a society with low crime, a great education system and an efficient health service will make for happier people – and it's the government's job to do that. Perhaps we'd be less begrudging of higher taxes if they actually achieved it. When it comes to family ties, relationships and a sense of purpose in life, only we can make those decisions. Can central government promote a sense of community without our own individual willingness to participate?

Time will tell I guess. But he'd better not make us all too happy – we might start living longer and I'm not sure the nation can afford it.

By: Pip Jones

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