“Michelle, ma belle”, sings Paul McCartney, “these are words that go together well.” Until recently, few people would have said the same of the terms “happiness” and “public policy”? But while these words may indeed lack the poetic elegance of the Beatles classic, it is our conviction that they will be inextricably linked in the future. Opponents of the idea to foster happiness through public policy still argue that our current measure of national well-being, Gross Domestic Product, ought to be replaced not by a “happiness index which would have no practical use in public policy“ (the Conservative chairman of the new German national commission on “Growth, Wealth, Quality of Life”, Georg Nuesslein, in DIE WELT on 26.09.2011). Instead, it is proposed that long-term economic growth should remain the central objective. Our view is different. In fact, our own efforts in the UK on “Measuring National Well-Being”, in which we are taking advisory roles, form part of a growing international movement.
The author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson put it exactly right: “The care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government”. Economic growth, decent jobs, accessible health care, good education etc. are only means to an end: people’s happiness. Politicians, academics and statisticians should therefore measure well-being directly, analyze its key drivers and make them the central aim of public policy, instead of theorizing about what could be the things that matter to people. Advancements in the new science of happiness mean that we can now measure people’s life satisfaction and happiness in a valid and reliable manner.
This is why in the UK, in an initiative led by the National Statistician upon invitation by the Prime Minister, individual well-being will play a central role in the new indicator system of “National Well-Being” to guide public policymaking in the 21st century. 200,000 Britons will be asked each year about how satisfied they are with their lives, and to what extent they feel that the things they do in their life are worthwhile. Four such questions of individual well-being will be complemented in this indicator system by the main drivers as identified in the research literature. These figures will provide both decision-makers as well as the general public with key information about how we can tackle the most pressing social issues of our time.
The OECD, the most important source for reliable statistical data in the world, is now taking the lead in designing appropriate questions which all member countries could use to measure well-being – just as OECE pioneered the measurement of GDP nearly 60 years ago. The EU has its own programme “GDP and beyond” and in July the UN General Assembly passed a unanimous resolution that governments should take more care of the happiness of their peoples.
More broad-based measurement of well-being could indeed revolutionize policymaking. It would allow us to conduct policy appraisals based on whether interventions have had an actual effect on people’s well-being, which in turn will give us crucial guidance on how to allocate scarce public resources. Furthermore, it is conceivable that the findings from happiness surveys will lead to a revision of well-worn ideological thought patterns both on the left and on the right. Asked whether his political views on, for example, more equality of income and higher taxes might change if the results of the happiness surveys seemed to suggest this, the British Prime Minister replied: “[These surveys] could throw up things that might challenge politicians’ views about equality or taxation but that is all for the good. We should never be frightened of having a debate.”
So Europeans eager to find new ways of welfare measurement do not need to look as far as the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness. The French President, for instance, commissioned an expert roundtable of several Nobel Laureates on this issue, the so called Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission. Their conclusion was that indicators of people’s subjective well-being provide key information and should be measured by statistical offices. And here is what David Cameron said: “We have got to recognise, officially, that economic growth is a means to an end. If your goal in politics is to help make a better life for people – which mine is – […] then you have got to take practical steps to make sure government is properly focused on our quality of life as well as economic growth.”
The aim of such an approach is far from developing indicators that tell people how to live their lives. In fact, the goal is to get away from that, as this is just what GDP with its underlying normative logic does. Nor can it be the aim of government to put pressure on us and force people to be happy, any more than it can force them to be more productive, or to go to university. It is an empirical fact that personal freedom is the most important condition for happiness. Government can only try to create the conditions in which people can flourish in different ways. Measuring people’s well-being is, however, the most efficient way to gauge how good a job it is doing. Because people themselves are the best judges of their own happiness.
An important signal will go out from the various national roundtables on measuring well-being on whether we draw the right lessons from the financial crisis and develop indicator systems that overcome the weaknesses of GDP. We have a historic chance to develop measures of progress which give us meaningful information about people’s real quality of life as a basis for public policy. Why not start by asking people how happy they are?
This contribution is a slightly revised version of an essay published in the German daily newspaper DIE WELT on 21 October 2011 (page 2). http://www.welt.de/print/die_welt/debatte/article13672571/Auch-das-Glueck-zaehlt.html