If you're happy and you know it... is that useful?

For many of us who regard themselves as members of that indefinable club ‘the progressive left’, the last two weeks haven’t gone exactly as we had hoped. Instead of the prospect of five years of a left-leaning coalition, we have seen the country (or at least England) choose a right-wing government following an election campaign dominated by a narrative that growth, as measured by GDP, is the primary aim of government, and whichever party delivers more of it is better.

But is that the case? Over the past few years, the idea that ‘happiness’ is a more important policy goal for governments than ‘growth’ has been gaining ground. First mooted by the King of Bhutan in the early 1970s, this idea was relatively ignored by policy makers until 2011, when the UN General Assembly identified happiness as one of the four pillars of global development. Indeed, even David Cameron said that ‘the country would be better off if we thought about wellbeing as well as economic growth’ (although that was as leader of the opposition and he has been pretty quiet on the subject since).

Nevertheless, this month has seen the release of The World Happiness Report (2015), an attempt by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network to measure how ‘happy’ the citizens of the world are, based on seven criteria: GDP per capita; social support; health; freedom; generosity; corruption; and dystopia.

Much is made of the overall ranking – the Swiss are happiest, the Togolese the least happy, with the UK coming in at 21st, slightly happier than the people of Oman and Venezuela but slightly more miserable than the Belgians. While it’s easy to lampoon such generalised statements, the reports do demonstrate a genuine attempt to measure the success of a country in a more appropriate way than simply its GDP.

This year, I was particularly struck by a chapter jointly written by Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme at LSE, and Sir Lord Gus O’Donnell, ex-Cabinet Secretary under three British Prime Ministers. These authors, establishment to their very core, start their chapter, entitled ‘How to make policy when happiness is the goal’, by quoting Thomas Jefferson: ‘The care of human life and happiness... is the only legitimate object of good government.’

If that is the goal, they argue, then the traditional cost-benefit analysis, still used by government departments to assess new policies, is no longer suitable for modern democracies. Rather, while such a cost-benefit analysis can be useful for some users of public services where there is a certain level of choice available (‘Should I drive to work or use public transport?’ ‘Which school should I send my children to?’), on those occasions where consumers of public services do not have a choice, or where external events go against their choice (‘Should I become ill?’ ‘Should I be robbed?’), then a cost-benefit analysis is inappropriate, because we can’t assume that people use certain services because they have weighed up the pros and cons of doing so in a monetary way. Indeed, we can assume that they haven’t.

Overall, the authors recommend that governments should focus on increasing happiness; that they should, with support from academics, define new mechanisms to measure this and that policy should be evaluated using these measures.

So that’s all right then, isn’t it? Senior economists and establishment figures are promoting happiness as a measure of public policy success, something I ought to be ‘happy’ about. So why am I left just a little uncomfortable?

Well, firstly, I’m unsure about the mechanisms with which they propose to measure happiness. As the authors themselves are at pains to point out, happiness is as complicated a measurement as cost-effectiveness, and the criteria they have chosen are merely the tip of a pretty big iceberg.

However, I think my main concern is the morality of utilising happiness in such a Benthamite way. Key to the authors’ recommendations is the assumption that if people are better informed, they will make better choices, and that if we empower them by giving them real choice in public policy decisions, they will be happier. That’s true, and it’s a good thing.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should therefore enact policies which provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, especially if that leaves the poorest and the weakest behind. Society is stronger when we take everyone with us, not just the majority, and sometimes that means policies that don’t make the greatest number happy will still be better for society as a whole. 

And there we have it. What starts out looking as if it’s a new policy discourse – happiness rather than economic growth – quickly reverts to that traditional debate between individual choice and collective action. Is my happiness more important than yours? Or ours?

Nevertheless, I’m still hopeful that the conversation will continue. It doesn’t look as if there will be a simple equation we can use to measure happiness – bad news for the Swiss, good for the Togolese – but, surely, however complicated the question, it has to be better than simply using GDP as a measure of success.

Dr Simon Adderley, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Birmingham Business School