Bill Jamieson: The pointless pursuit of happiness

Roger Hargreaves' Mr Happy is great as a cartoon character ' but let's keep him out of economics. Picture: PA
Roger Hargreaves' Mr Happy is great as a cartoon character ' but let's keep him out of economics. Picture: PA
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THE Scottish Government is to introduce ‘wellbeing’ measures of economic success. Bill Jamieson, for one, isn’t pleased

Be HAPPY, be clappy and bang that tambourine: the Scottish Government is coming our way to measure our “wellbeing”. It’s an outcrop of the fast-growing school of “Happiness Economics”, pushing itself forward as an alternative measure of economic development. It argues that conventional measures – Gross Domestic Product statistics, labour market data, income and expenditure surveys – aren’t really capturing our personal and national life satisfaction.

Instead, wellbeing economics offers a sophisticated version of “the feel-good factor” held to play a critical role in the electoral fortunes of governments, giving a more revealing picture of the state of voter satisfaction.

Now legislation going through the Scottish Parliament will make it a legal requirement for the Scottish Government to build a range of “wellbeing” measures into assessments of how its policies are working.

Too much like Big Brother? Perhaps, but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” featured among the “certain unalienable rights” for which government was instituted in the American Declaration of Independence. Life and liberty we have broadly got. It’s the happiness bit that gives us a constant headache.

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The wellbeing initiative was the subject of an earnest seminar last night organised by the David Hume Institute, a group not normally given to tambourine-bashing. Its members were presented with “a synthesis of the outputs” ranging across what influences individual and societal wellbeing; how best to measure wellbeing, and “how best to promote and embed improved wellbeing”.

These ambitious goals are being taken very seriously indeed. The wellbeing initiative has involved six projects led by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII) and 15 events across Scotland with more than 500 participants, including Scottish and international academics, policy makers, practitioners and the wider public. A consortium of interested parties has been set up to help shape and guide the programme. This includes Scotland’s Futures Forum, the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government, Carnegie UK Trust, Oxfam Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, SNH, Sepa, SCVO and Audit Scotland. With such a range of big guns in front, can true bliss be far behind?

Says Charlie Woods, director of the SUII, who presented the work at the seminar: “The quality of life is impacted by more than an exclusive focus on growth in GDP.”

Several problems immediately arise with all of this. What is to be the definition of wellbeing? Of what does it comprise? What ingredients go into the wellbeing pot and how are they to be weighted? Are there standard components, applicable to all situations and constant over time? How do we measure from region to region and over past periods when different issues and concerns may dominate? And how do we calculate with any accuracy the impact on wellbeing of specific government measures as opposed to changes wrought by general movements in the economy?

The study of wellbeing has to be clearly defined and measurable, lest it disintegrates into a welter of confusing data. This incoherence is multiplied if official targets are subsequently imposed to meet specific outcomes. And, as voters know only too well, the pursuit of targets does not always lead to better wellbeing.

Other difficulties arise. Our sense of wellbeing can be influenced by any number of factors. And the results can be highly subjective. The Office for National Statistics recently published results of a survey of personal wellbeing. The questions asked included: “How satisfied are you with life nowadays?”, “To what extent do you feel the things you do in life are worthwhile?” and “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” The results, broken down by nation and region, defy conventional expectations of where you might find “happiness” and where “misery”. Take, for example, its reading of wellbeing in West Dunbartonshire, which has some of the highest social deprivation scores in Britain. It certainly has deep levels of poverty. And it’s not at all to be confused with East Dunbartonshire. But when it comes to personal happiness, the personal wellbeing survey found there was little to choose between them.

The new Fiscal Affairs Scotland Journal highlighted some of the curious – some might say bizarre – findings. Within Scotland, the high scores are recorded by the island councils (Orkney, Eilean Siar and Shetland). Beyond the islands, the top scores tend to be in more rural areas such as the Highlands and the Borders. Amongst non-rural areas, the wealthier parts of Scotland tend to do best.

Comparing Scotland with the rest of the UK, we see similar scores for some of the cities which suffered considerable long-term industrial decline prior to their current re-emergence; for example, Glasgow, Dundee, Liverpool and Manchester. Some of the offsetting factors between quality of life and standard of living are highlighted by the equal high happiness scores for the Highlands and Kensington and Chelsea.

But here’s a strange thing. The average scores for life satisfaction for East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire are close, at 7.73 and 7.33 respectively. And more than 70 per cent of those surveyed in West Dunbartonshire considered their life satisfaction level to be high or very high.

Within Scotland, the high scores in the island councils are consistent with similar findings in relation to other quality of life surveys, and which have been connected to a strong community spirit. But is it really all happy clappy in West Dunbartonshire? Some will say this only shows the shortcomings of the “happiness” school in being unable to produce much of value from such personal and subjective measures. Is there really such a thing as a common measure of “life satisfaction?” What does it really tell us if people felt happy yesterday, or that they felt more or less “anxious”? Anxious about what?

And here lurks a trap for the Scottish Government in its survey. If the chief measures being selected to define our wellbeing principally relate to the provision of public services, expect low scores: as we learned this week, George Osborne must cut deeper into non-protected areas of public services to meet austerity targets set to almost double to £48 billion. These non-protected departments face real-terms cuts of 33 per cent, compared with the 21 per cent cuts they faced between 2009-10 and 2014-15.

Here we meet a crucial difference between doing what is right and pursuing “wellbeing”: debt and deficit reduction are the “right” policies to pursue for our longer term wellbeing – but not immediately good at all for the wellbeing of voters and the governments imposing cuts.

However, on the happier side, our feelings of wellbeing are still predominantly determined by community, having a job to go to and having more money in our pockets. Latest figures showing unemployment in Scotland down and numbers employed up by 22,000 over the three months to September will lift morale.

Equally helpful to our wellbeing are figures showing average earnings have beaten inflation for the first time in five years. Jobs and pay bang the tambourine: thus do the economics of wellbeing turn full circle.

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