Analysis: Serious business of government cannot afford to ignore happiness of its people

HAPPINESS is what we want for ourselves and for our children, but the publication of the ONS wellbeing statistics prompts the question: why is it important for government?

We’ve got so used to headline government statistics on productivity growth (or the lack of it) and inflation, with nightly news reports on stock market performance, that it’s easy to forget that success on these economic measures is just a means to an end. That end is enabling flourishing human lives – promoting wellbeing.

In the 19th century, when economics was first forming as a discipline, it was thought impossible to make reliable comparisons of happiness between people. So income was used as a proxy measure, and this way of thinking stuck.

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However, as Robert Kennedy pointed out during his 1968 presidential campaign, economic measures are a very narrow guide to policy – they count spending that leads to “air pollution and cigarette advertising” but not “the health of our children or the quality of their education”.

Over the past 30 years, a wealth of scientific evidence has built up showing that we can now measure people’s overall happiness with life.

Such measures have been shown to converge with other types of data, including brain scans, how much you smile, how happy other people say you are, and have also been shown to predict behaviour.

Crucially, they are also linked to all sorts of aspects of people’s lives that are affected by policy decisions, including income, employment status, housing conditions and air quality. Levels of social trust are another policy-relevant factor which are crucial to promoting well-being – perhaps good social networks could explain why Scotland does well in the new figures compared to the rest of Great Britain?

This sort of evidence has led to growing calls for wellbeing indicators to be used as headline measures of national progress, to help judge the success of overall government policy.

Such measures send a clear message, that, as David Cameron said in November 2010, “finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is actually the serious business of government”. And they should also provide incentives for politicians to follow through with real action, because they provide a new means for the public to hold them to account.

“How well is the government promoting happiness?” is the new political question of our times.

• Juliet Michaelson is a senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation