Following in the footsteps of Nicolas Sarkozy, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has directed the Office of National Statistics to develop metrics to measure the UK’s “general well-being.” Happiness indices have received a fair amount of press in recent years (including here at Triple Pundit) since Nobel Laureate economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen began advocating a move away from a exclusively economic view of gross domestic product towards a model that takes into account less concrete measures, such as sustainability and, yes, well-being.
In the wake of Stiglitz and Sen’s recommendations, several other countries including Canada and France have begun investigating the best way to tabulate and quantify citizens’ satisfaction with their lives. Downing Street sources have said that Cameron’s poll will take some direction from the French and Canadian groundwork.
“The UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report: systematically measuring subjective wellbeing as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices,” says John Helliwell of the Canadian National Statistics Council. Helliwell has been advising UK officials on the shape of their poll.
Privately, some UK politicians are expressing unease with pursuing the index at this juncture. Since its election in May, the UK’s Coalition Government has made deep slashes in public spending, and just last week students rioted in Westminster after a protest against rising tuition fees turned violent. Many fear that a well-being index will reveal just how discontented the public is.
But, if adopted, a happiness index would put a far greater weight on the cost and benefits of environmental projects and low-carbon ventures. Such projects would also attract more investor interest. The UK already requires carbon impact assessments of government policy prior to enactment, but critics say environmental aspects are often glossed over in favor of economic interests. A happiness index would put even greater emphasis on environmental factors, because sustainability is an important factor in Stiglitz and Sen’s recommendations.
Cameron has long advocated better metrics on general well-being, gauging people’s wellbeing as one of the “central political issues of our time,” and embarking on this index fulfills one of his campaign promises. And while happiness and well-being may be intangibles, the government hopes the results will be hard, useful data.
“If you want to know, should I live in Exeter rather than London? What will it do to my quality of life? You need a large enough sample size and if you have a big sample, and have more than one a year, then people can make proper analysis on what to do with their life,” says a Downing Street source. “And next time we have a comprehensive spending review, let’s not just guess what effect various policies will have on people’s wellbeing. Let’s actually know.”