Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Happiness is not a cigar called Hamlet - 2

I promised I'd return to the subject of happiness in government policy.

The UK government has just published a well-being index which has been widely but inaccurately described as a measure of happiness. This is overtly and laudably aimed at supplementing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of how we're doing.

There is no serious doubt that GDP should not stand alone. For example, it measures present levels of economic activity only - so rapid use of non-renewable resources actually improves the score until we reach the point that even the markets get scared and recession results. Moreover, it counts economic activity rather than sufficiency of desirable things. Imagine you own a bit of land with plum and apple trees. You pick and eat your own plums and apples, so you don't lack fruit, but as no transaction is involved, nothing is contributed to GDP. But if you sold your plums and apples to person B and then bought other fruit from person C, that would contribute to GDP. Finally, it's increasingly clear that high growth does not necessarily bring greater happiness.

Even in the late 1950s, when it was easier to assume that a society at peace and growing wealthier was improving, when Prime MinisterHarold Macmillan declared "You've never had it so good", this was criticised for being too materialistic.

There are some problems, though. I think we can dismiss quickly the objection that such an index is merely an attempt to divert attention from the bad state of the economy. If Cameron could make people forget the economy that easily, he'd be delighted! Since growth in GDP can bring wealth to a very few and very little to the rest, while measures like the Government's index give equal importance to everyone (or everyone who can be located), the left should think twice before dismissing the idea. The argument that a well-being index is Orwellian shoudl be balanced against the existing tendency to refer to GDP only. Is it liberating to treat us as cogs in a production machine?

However, for a start, the concepts are imprecise. What exactly is happiness - or well-being? I honestly find it hard to say if I'm happy, and well-being implies that someone else (like the government) is deciding for me what is good for me and what constitutes mental as well as physical well-being. Moreover, to what extent is happiness - or contentment or well-being as defined by the government - something we should be aiming at as a good in its own right? Remember in my first post on this subject that contented slave society? And what about a society basking in its well-being and happily ignoring signs of impending environmental catastrophe which an unhappier soceity might act to prevent?

The index measures a number of things including physical health and good working conditions, so calling it a happiness index is misleading. However, happiness is one of the things measured. This is a list of

factors to form the "Emoptional Health Index" within the total measure:

  • Smiling or laughter
  • Being treated with respect
  • Enjoyment
  • Happiness
  • Worry
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Stress
  • Learning or doing something interesting
  • Depression.
I actually do think this is useful, but all of these are disputable.  Here's Fred. He smiles and laughs a lot at other people's misfortunes. He's treated with respect because he's very big and strong, and consequently he doesn't need to be angry often. He enjoys violent computer games and driving very fast and finds these interesting. He has no worries and little stress and feels happy. His partner died recently but he doesn't feel sad about that at all and isn't depressed.

OK, that's an individual and in reality a community containing Fred would contain some quite unhappy people. But the point is that contentment can be reached in ways many of us would consider unsustainable. After all, perhaps Fred is not an individual but a rich and powerful nation!

Sadness and anger can be healthy reactions. How easy it would be to govern and hoodwink a society without anger! Creativity, love and beauty often come out of sadness, stress, even anger. That is part of being fully human.So there is a little truth in the argument about diverting attention from unwelcome truths - not just from the lack of growth in the economy, but from evils we should be aware of and fighting. The Roman plebs were kept happy through "panem et circenses".

Finally, while the index will contain a lot of useful information, it might be better not to create a single figure for a factitious single measure. It would be bound to mislead (politicians as well as everyone else) and would depend heavily on what questions were asked and what weight was given to different factors. The kind of information that would be really useful would be that work-related stress was increasing or that more retired people felt they were doing something interesting in the North than in the South. You can base action on those.


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