Can the government make us happier? David Cameron would like us to think so, it seems: we’re told the British government will soon start measuring happiness, with regular updates and an ongoing ‘National Well-Being Project’ led by the Office for National Statistics.
So far there’s a remarkable lack of detail on how this information is to be used. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that details along those lines will be forthcoming. Academics have been investigating happiness for several decades now (leaving aside the ancient philosophical inquiries), with some fascinating results. But among scholars, at least, there is usually great reluctance to turn findings into proposals for policy interventions, for some very good reasons.
Many research findings emerge from comparisons among individuals at one point in time: people who take part more frequently in social activities are happier than those who spend more of their time alone, for example. The problem is, this sort of finding doesn’t mean that those who spend more time alone would be happier if they became more sociable. Causality might go the other way: perhaps they spend more time alone because they are less happy, and if so then spending more time with other people might even make them more miserable. Investigating change, even at the individual level, is much harder, with more stringent data demands.
Even when we have good research on change, it’s another matter entirely to work out how government policies might get us from A to B. Religious people are happier than the non-religious – but there’s nothing governments can or should do to get us to be more religious. It’s slightly puzzling to see this happiness initiative coming from a Conservative-led government (Labour dabbled in it for a while and then punted) – a government policy on happiness is a libertarian’s nightmare. Even a ‘big government’ enthusiast might experience some troubled sleep: even if we could be confident they knew what they were doing, it would be hard to shake off worries about paternalism. Several researchers have suggested that happiness is at best an appropriate goal for individuals, not for governments on their behalf, and I think that’s probably right.
None of this is to say that measuring happiness is not a worthwhile endeavour (though it does already happen, in the British components of the World Values Survey and the European Social Survey – why, exactly, do we need the ONS to do it themselves?). On the contrary, I wholly support it, and I’m glad to see the current government embrace it – in part because it offers some leverage for critique of current policy directions.
Mr Cameron says there is “more to life than money” – and indeed one of the most striking findings of happiness studies is that economic growth has contributed nothing in recent decades to the happiness of already-wealthy countries. Why, then, did he promise the CBI that they would get a “relentless focus on growth” from a Conservative government? (Yes, I know – silly question.) For the sake of that growth, we will now get unprecedented cuts in public expenditure – and make no mistake, unemployment does cause unhappiness, in a way that persists even after one finds another job. (As an aside: what if it didn’t? Would unemployment then be nothing to worry about?) We might not know how governments can lead us to happiness – but I’m more confident in perceiving how this government is going to lead certain people away from it.
Perhaps we’re left only with the impression that the government ‘cares’ about our happiness, not just about economic growth. Is it overly cynical of me to suggest that fostering that impression is probably their main goal?
Dr David Bartram is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester and the author of International Labor Migration: Foreign Workers and Public Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). He is a founder member of the University’s Well-Being and Health Research Group.
Bartram, David: 2011. ‘Economic Migration and Happiness: Comparing Immigrants’ and Natives’ Happiness Gains from Income.’ Forthcoming in Social Indicators Research (link).
Bartram, David: 2010. ‘International Migration, Open Border Debates, and Happiness.’ International Studies Review, 12:3, 339-361 (link).
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