This week saw the publication of the very first official statistics relating to UK wellbeing. The survey, carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), is an attempt to produce an alternative measure of national performance to Gross Domestic Product. Prime Minister David Cameron has described it as crucial to finding out what the government can do to “really improve lives”.
So what have we learned? Well, apparently, we are happier and less anxious as a nation than we were 12 months ago. The proportion of people giving a high life satisfaction score rose from 75.9% in 2012 to 77% in 2013.
The four subjective wellbeing questions included in the ONS household surveys are as follows:
Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
All the questions are answered on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is ‘not at all’ and 10 is ‘completely’.
The sample size for the monthly OPN survey is around 1,100 adults aged 16 and over per month.
So if you were one of those who gave a high life satisfaction score (7 or more out of 10), what were you really trying to convey? What factors did you consider? Did you take account of your relationships with those around you, at home and/or at work? Were you referring to the state of your health or your financial circumstances? Did you give consideration to your home and/or work environments? Was your employment status a factor? Did you broaden your evaluation to embrace community or national factors such as the ‘Olympics bounce’ or the economic outlook? Could your score be considered a reflection of your resilience to adversity (after all, happiness may be determined as much by our attitude and disposition as by our circumstances)? Did you ask yourself if you were achieving your life goals? Do you even have any life goals? How much weight did you give to crime levels in your community? What was the weather like? Had you just had lunch? Was it good? Alcohol?
This type of survey is ‘soft science’, i.e. the research is based on asking people their opinions or what they think or feel, etc. No empirical data is used. Unfortunately, people are easily influenced by the phrasing of questions. They are inconsistent and may hate something today that they liked yesterday. They often don’t know what makes them happy, and even if they do, they don’t know why. Sometimes people will perversely refuse to say or do anything that may make them predictable. And, strange as it may seem, sometimes just for the sheer hell of it, they tell lies.
ONS wellbeing project director Glenn Everett said: “Understanding people’s views of well-being is an important addition to existing official statistics and has potential uses in the policy making process and to aid other decision making.” Now that, right there, is the worrying aspect of all this. Policy makers are actually going to take it seriously! I’m inclined to go along with Steve Davies, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, who said: “I actually think that this could be quite dangerous because it could lead to government interfering in all sorts of aspects of people’s personal life and I wouldn’t like to go there.”
If our happiness depends on what our government does, I think we really do have a problem.
You cannot define happiness. You certainly cannot measure it. As Abraham Lincoln said: “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be”. A happiness index should never become part of the process of official policymaking, not least because it threatens to blur the line that separates our public lives from our private lives. And none of us should be happy to allow that to happen.