Happy now? As Britain prepares to measure 'wellbeing', we conclude our happiness debate

As Britain publishes its first 'national wellbeing indicators', OurKingdom wraps up our debate on happiness. Here, the editor of the debate looks back on the series of articles inspired by the growing interest in happiness shown by politicians, economists, statisticians and psychologists.
William Davies
11 November 2011

As Britain publishes its first 'national wellbeing indicators', OurKingdom wraps up our debate on happiness. Here, the editor of the debate looks back on the series of articles inspired by the growing interest in happiness shown by politicians, economists, statisticians and psychologists.

Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that it had identified ten indicators of national wellbeing, following a lengthy public consultation on what people considered to be important in valuing and measuring the quality of their lives. The central finding appears to be that ‘individual satisfaction’, that is, how satisfied people feel about their own lives, is the most important indicator of wellbeing. This scores more highly than the circumstantial elements in wellbeing (such as health and relationships), which in turn score more highly than the structural factors (such as the state of the economy or environment).

Could the consultation have turned out otherwise? Might this new apparatus of valuation have thrown up the result that the British public would like to prioritise ‘good governance’ or ‘financial stability’, then work down from there? I suspect not. There is a tautology at the heart of this venture. Wellbeing research has a bias towards the psychological, which elevates impressions and moods to the status of an over-arching societal measure.

This is something that a number of contributors to the OurKingdom happiness debate have sharply criticised. Gerry Hassan argued that “we are being sold a false premise of liberation, freedom and expression by powerful forces which shape modern life. Instead of seeing ourselves only as individuals, human beings are naturally social and connected, who define themselves as much collectively.” A related critique, as made by Pat Kane and Chris Groves, was that this focus upon individual states of being, was distracting from the economic conditions that might cause unhappiness in the first place, especially insecurity in the face of the future.

Somewhat more optimistically, I wondered whether happiness economics might ultimately return public attention towards substantial questions of political economy, once it becomes clear how much unhappiness is related to unemployment, insecurity and bad workplace relations. I hoped that Geoff Mulgan (one of the co-founders of Action for Happiness) might be persuaded to agree with this point, in an interview with him for the happiness debate, though he was more keen to focus on the empirical evidence as and when it develops.

There was a second cluster of themes that emerged from the debate, which questioned how happiness was being defined. Clearly there are multiple ways of defining and measuring happiness, and one of the risks is that the followers of Jeremy Bentham in the economics profession have a worrying tendency to reduce all forms of human experience to a single scale. On this, Mulgan was happy to agree. Articles by Jules Evans and Matt Grist both argued, perhaps somewhat hopefully in view of last week’s ONS announcement, that a more rounded, Aristotelian or participatory view of happiness needed accounting for, in which society, community or nation provides a sense of belonging and basis for ‘the good life’. More starkly, Kate Oakley offered a resolutely anti-utilitarian critique of the turn to happiness in British arts policy.

It is difficult to imagine any contributor to our debate arguing that ‘individual satisfaction’ is the most important component of national wellbeing. But that, apparently, is the view of the British public. One could argue that the consultation exercise was framed by particular economic and statistical experts, in ways that invited such a response. Or perhaps intellectuals and political thinkers have always been hostile to the doyens of statistical measurement, the whole way back to the Enlightenment. As editor of the debate, I found it difficult to find contributors who might put the case for happiness economics or measurement, although Carol Graham’s contribution was a welcome and articulate exception in this regard. But maybe we have to consider that the British public has spoken, and declared that a person’s private, mental state really is the most important thing in life.

This proposition seems a little, well, worrying. Perhaps this agenda represents a form of neoliberalism 2.0, in which the value relativism that Friedrich Hayek praised in markets, is wedded to the psychologism of the marketing industry, until every public or private institution, every asset or relationship, every cost or benefit, is only evaluated in terms of one single question: how does it make me feel? The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, argues that personal enjoyment has become a greater obligation in the contemporary age than self-discipline, and brings an even greater sense of failure when it is not achieved. Perhaps ‘individual satisfaction’ is the last thing that should be placed at the centre of a good, fulfilling life. Happiness, as various philosophers have noticed, is often best achieved when we least seek it.

But before we turn cynically away from the ONS agenda, and the happiness movement more broadly, lets at least remember how magically slippery terms such as ‘happiness’ (and, to a lesser extent, wellbeing) are. These are not terms that experts or statisticians will ever be able to monopolise, as they do with those all-important policy categories of ‘efficiency’, ‘health’ and ‘CO2’. Lets at least welcome the fact that here is an emerging policy agenda, which everyone can contribute a legitimate view on, as the ONS consultation has demonstrated, for better or worse. That is not the value relativism of the market, but a glimmer of the perspectival competition of democracy.  

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