How Happy Is Britain? The British Gov't Wants to Know

While implementing severe spending cuts

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Pass the port; the British government will now be measuring national happiness--or rather general "wellbeing." Though leaders aren't insensible to the awkwardness of attaching an official mood-ring to a country still reeling from economic hardship and spending cuts, they're going to do it anyway. Here's some of the reaction.

  • Happiness Measurers Want to Stunt Economic Growth  "What should concern us," writes a convincingly concerned Andrew Haldenby in The Telegraph, "is that the advocates of 'happiness' that have influenced Government want reduced economic growth and populations poorer than they would otherwise be. This is in fact the whole idea of the 'happiness economics' that has emerged over the last 20 years."
  • Just Generally a Bad Idea  Philip Johnston, another Telegraph-hosted skeptic, also remarks on how easy it is "for politicians to set criteria for happiness that fit their own political outlook." He adds, too, that
Questions such as "How much purpose does your life have?" may be the stock in trade of psychiatrists and priests but are dangerous for politicians because the answers are so unpredictable. As John Stuart Mill said: "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so." Yet it seems that modern politicians have bought so heavily into the idea that the state can do everything that they have deluded themselves into believing it can deliver the most elusive of all human desires: happiness.
  • 'Not As Flaky as It First Seems'  Politicians are already trying to measure constituents' happiness, argues Barbara Gunnell at The Guardian. In the past, though, they "have tended to believe that they just instinctively understand what makes their constituents happy," offering policy proposals catering to needs they suspect an opposing party does not fulfill. But "now," says Gunnell, "their decisions can have a scientific base ... The real measure of happiness is what people themselves report."
  • Nor Is It New  As Gunnell also points out, "Bhutan pioneered the idea in 1972 with a gross national happiness index, which was intended to remind citizens that GNP wasn't everything and that the nation was concerned with spiritual values as much as with wealth." (That seems unlikely to soothe Andrew Haldenby). "And, in 2002, New Labour was reported to be in talks with happiness economists," she adds, conjuring up interesting images. The Spectator's Peter Hoskin suspects the issue is back in the limelight first because "it's not actually a terrible idea" and second because "it is something that will appeal to the yellow half of the coalition, and lighten some of the gloom surrounding the Spending Review."
  • Look How Modern We Are--We're Engineering Happiness!  We use the term "utilitarian" disparagingly for a reason, reflects Clare Carlisle at The Guardian. The philosopher Heidegger, unlike utilitarian John Stuart Mill, had reservations about a modern technological way of thinking: "the essence of technology, argued Heidegger, lies in the idea that life is something to be controlled and mastered." But that's not necessarily the best way to get to the "good life," points out Carlisle. She wonders if "the wisest people are those who make every effort to establish and maintain the conditions of their happiness," but, "at the same time, ... recognise that happiness cannot be engineered, for it comes and goes, more like a gift that is given than a commodity that is produced."
  • Is Cameron the Party Pooper Really the One to Do It?  Cameron is embracing happiness measurements because "the Office for National Statistics was doing it anyway," writes Polly Toynbee at The Guardian. But she sees a "contradiction" between wanting people to be happy and simultaneously turning them out of their homes through "housing benefit cuts." In short, she's not sure Cameron the austerity fairy is going to fool anyone by adding a cheery red clown's nose to the costume:
The poorest teenagers are about to lose the educational maintenance allowance that paid their travel to college and gave them a little money of their own. Look at what is about to hit the arts, a great source of pleasure. If fewer go to university as a result of tripling fees, the sum total of happiness will fall: people with degrees record greater life satisfaction than those without, a cultural enrichment beyond mere earnings.
  • What Is Happiness?  Politics Daily correspondent Delia Lloyd points out studies showing paupers in war zones can be happy and millionaires can be depressed. "From a policy standpoint, it's not entirely clear what you do with that insight," she comments. "If people claim to be happy despite lacking a political voice . . . or a clean environment . . . or a healthy income, shouldn't those things matter on their own merits?" New research suggests, too, that the standard " GDP actually holds up pretty well as a proxy for happiness," confounding the general happiness vs. GDP narrative. Her point? She's not "sure" where these studies leave us, but Cameron's going to have to dive into this if he wants to go through with the happiness plan.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.