A government plan for happiness?

Dr David Bartram, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:

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.Dr David Bartram

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.

Related documents

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).


  1. Clive Jude
    Posted 15/04/2011 at 17:43 | Permalink

    I remember well a rather wise and thoughtful old Buddhist monk talking about the myth of happiness saying that life is really many very ordinary and often not happpy days punctuated by the very occasional happy one. How true, and honest!
    Not much more I could say.


  2. Amanda Lothian
    Posted 14/03/2011 at 19:45 | Permalink

    what would make most people happier is very much less governance.


    David Bartram Reply:

    No hope from Cameron, then! Anyway, the libertarian in me agrees: *people* should be governed less. Fortunately, banks are not people…


  3. Louise
    Posted 08/03/2011 at 20:42 | Permalink

    At least they’re recognising that there is actually a link between happiness and productivity. It’s great that they actually want to ask us rather than telling us what should make us happy!


    Patrick Crossfield Reply:

    “It’s great that they actually want to ask us rather than telling us what should make us happy!”

    You really think so? This will not be an open ended questionnaire which genuinely and honestly seeks your views, you will have a few boxes to tick (the shorter the better as far as they are concerned) and will be skewed to show that despite the cuts etc we are all very happy indeed. In fact, things really could not be any better. I am afraid that if you think the government has any real desire to know whether we (ie the nation) are happy or not, you may well find that you are just a little tiny tiny mistaken. I may be wrong, and If I am I will apologise, but I am reasonably sure they already know the answer – otherwise, why ask the question?


  4. Roland Bensted
    Posted 07/03/2011 at 19:06 | Permalink

    It’s positive that the government want to have an index of happiness.

    The challenges include:

    1) Gaining consensus on a measure of happiness (or well being) that can be considered onjective.

    2) The policy implications. If the happiness indicators strongly suggest that a particular policy (or set of policies) is harming happiness and well being on a large scale, will governments really be prepared to follow the evidence and change their policies?


  5. bishopmead
    Posted 04/03/2011 at 21:04 | Permalink

    In my experience the majority of the populace have no knowledge of how government works, and only a hazy perspective on elections and politics. Before asking the population to participate in surveys on “wellbeing” it would be more sensible to make “British Constitution and government” a compulsory subject at GCSE with a requirement that all students achieve a minimum grade C or retake the exam. Most citizens leave education (even today) semi-literate and standards are getting worse – not better, a sad indictment on the liberal laissez-faire attitude of so-called educators.


    Patrick Crossfield Reply:

    I am not sure why you think that having a working knowledge of governmental issues has any bearing on whether or not people can have a subjective view on well being. Surely your desire to only allow those people who have attained a certain grade in a particular subject to have a say in issues such as this disenfranchises the majority of the population?


    bishopmead Reply:

    You may be correct, and I have not suggested that only people who have attained a certain grade in a particular subject should have a right to an opinion. I am suggesting that it would be more useful to make education in the way that our democracy works mandatory. In that way perhaps the people who currently do not have an opinion or effectively “can’t be bothered” will realise that democratic government relies upon the participation of all the population, and that does not mean just by voting in political elections. How many people for example will boycott the census on the basis that it is intrusive, or infringes their freedoms in some way? What percentage of the population would you estimate have never even heard of the census? It is perhaps significant that the organisation preparing to conduct the “Wellbeing survey” is the same organisation that conducts the census – what chance is there that the majority of the population will even have heard of the “Wellbeing survey” let alone be bothered enough to respond. In effect I am trying to point out that the starting point is to INCLUDE everyone by helping them to understand the process, not to exclude anyone – I apologise if my post gives the opposite impression.


    Patrick Crossfield Reply:

    No need to apologise for your opinions, I may not agree with them, but I respect your right to hold them. I think that there is an inherent issue here, related to democratic rights and responsibilities. We have a right not to vote, and indeed we have seen over recent years the percentage of people voting in all forms of elective processes decline. I would suggest that this is not because of disinterest or a lack of education, but related to a lack of trust, disappointment in both the process and elected members, and a realisation that there is a huge chasm between people and politicians. How on earth can the current cabinet truly know what life is like for the majority of the people they claim to represent when they are actually millionaires?

    Look at the recent results for Barnsley. This is people making it clear to the government that they do not forget broken promises.

    Furthermore, you are allowed to drive a car without having a detailed knowledge of the mechanical or electrical functioning of the machine. Use mobile phones, computers, cash machines, with little or no knowledge of their internal functioning. We can be a part of society without understanding social norms or how society works, with little or no knowledge of sociology.


    Mike Redhead Reply:

    The lessons of the Barnsley results are that prospective Members of Parliament should be more honest about what they will do if their party achieves a position of power, and the electorate should be more realistic about the government’s abilty to “fix” people’s problems. Governments do not control events, they react to them. Sometimes the reaction improves the situation, sometimes not.


    Patrick Crossfield Reply:

    Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with the first statement, I am not entirely sure that I can do so with the second. Surely that is what we expect from government – that they will act appropriately to “fix” problems, and in doing so they should act in a decent manner that is fair and equitable to all of society?

    Chris Williams Reply:

    We could not make “British constitution and government” a mandatory subject without deceiving our children further. A constitution which is not written down and can be changed by a govermpnment elected by a minority of votes cast does not deserve the name. First create your constitution and then educate you children about it.

    Will that improve happiness? It will improve mine but I may be the only one. The UK has only had two democratically elected governments since achieving universal adult suffrage: 1931 and 2010. If ever proof was needed that democracy is no guarantee of happiness those two elections fit the bill perfectly.


    Mike Redhead Reply:

    Democracy is no guarantee of happiness but is our system of government as democratic as we think? In the last general election we were invited on television to choose between three prospective prime ministers but not a single citizen could actually make that choice through the ballot box.

    In practice our democratic rights consist of the ability, once every five years or so, to register our satisfaction or otherwise with the existing government. Theoretically, parliament should scrutinize the actions of the government on our behalf but the party system tends to result in the government controlling parliament instead of the other way round.

    I am not saying that our system is undemocratic. It has developed over hundreds of years and will, I hope and believe, continue to do so. I do maintain that the system is somewhat outdated in the twenty-first century.


    Patrick Crossfield Reply:

    Agreed – and with party whips controlling who should vote for what, the representation by MP’s of the people who elected them becomes thinner, less relevant, and marginalised.


    Mike Redhead Reply:

    Can we also agree on a possible solution? In the short term I believe the alternative voting system would be a step in the right direction.

    For the future I would advocate separate elections for the office of prime minister and for members of parliament, to be held on the same day and for a fixed term of five years. The prime minister should not be able to hold office for more than two terms.

    I realize this follows the American system but that is not neccessarily a bad thing. The difference is that in this country the power of the government is derived from the monarch, while that of parliament is derived from the people. To that extent our existing constitution would remain unchanged.


    Patrick Crossfield Reply:

    I would suggest that we scrap the whole adversarial system, as it just leads to chaos and blame, and the restructuring (at great expense) of all the previous government has done. What is clear is that the current system is (to use a well worn phrase) not fit for purpose. So, we would have elected representatives (MP’s) who would have won the local election. This makes up the government. There would be no need for an opposition, as we blindly accept the fact that we have one, and we therefore have to pay for one. In the meantime, there would be further elections for the cabinet and PM. A wholly voted system, voted for by the people, to act on behalf of their constituents. There may well be a problem with this, but I cannot see one.

    Spectator1 Reply:

    Please not AV. That will only mean more Liberal Democrats and they can hardly work out what to have for breakfast let alone run a country.

    Chris Williams Reply:

    If you want democracy you need a proportional voting system which AV is not. This would not please Spectator1 and he is not alone. Whilst the Scots, Northern Irish (do they call themselves that), and Welsh are happy to have various proportional voting systems, the English do not seem quite so keen. We can only speculate why that might be but perhaps not having their own parliament might be one reason. It may just be they like flip-flop governments rather than consensus governments. Flip-flops tend to be adversarial which many people claim to oppose. Nobody ever claimed the English are consistent.

    What should concern us more than AV or FPTP is the Gerrymandering that is being perpetrated in the same Bill. The media has not concerned itself with that to date, a fact which is interesting in itself.

  6. Patrick Crossfield
    Posted 04/03/2011 at 06:18 | Permalink

    Why is the government asking this question at this time? I fear that the answers are already known (well, at least the answers the government wish to see) and will be seen as justification for continuing the disastrous social and economic changes we are currently seeing. (ie if well being or happiness is NOT linked to the changes, then they can carry on and do more of the same because it will not make us less (or more) happy)


  7. ton
    Posted 03/03/2011 at 17:17 | Permalink

    broken it more than that it a shit unlest you are well off and thar is no uk it belong to eu and it time we got out


  8. Toby
    Posted 03/03/2011 at 07:54 | Permalink

    Whilst I think suspicions of Cameron’s motives may be legitimate, I don’t think that detracts from the core work of the ONS in finding a statistical measure of well-being that reaches beyond a pure economics/GDP approach.


  9. Posted 28/02/2011 at 09:41 | Permalink

    I should have added that I feel strongly, as a previous contirbutor wrote, that whilst happiness is an individual, personal perception, it is very strongly affected by well-being. Without an adequate sense of well-being and connection in our lives, then I feel that a sense of happiness is unlikely – or rather, impossible. Hence the vital importance of our system of care and our resources for this and their support (by “the State”) – a caring Authority to support our own (individual and joint) contributions in our society. This has to be, surely – so as to protect the many crucial areas in all our lives which cannot be governed by a profit motive, or by the marketplace.


  10. Posted 28/02/2011 at 08:53 | Permalink

    I am “intrigued” (cynically, I’m afraid) that David Cameron is claiming to be interested in listening to our descriptions of well-being – at a time when he is firmly hell-bent on systematically destroying so much of what constitutes a sense of well-being in our lives! – By this I mean having access to adequate basic needs, to a home, an education,work, culture, (incl libraries!), health (and care, not fear, in old age); to a wage one can live on – plus fair wages for the work done – without such huge inequalities, (incl. the current “acceptance” of Bankers bonuses, for example!) to hope, etc, etc, etc. I’m afraid I see his apparent “interest” as a deviation from the reality of what is happening now in our Society – He atually wants “the State” to shrink and shrivel, rather than to help create well-being. My sense of well-being is reducing dramatically as I see what is happening to our country.


  11. sylvana palladin
    Posted 28/02/2011 at 08:50 | Permalink

    As a poor person i feel that the one major change for the wellbeing of many people would be more affordable social housing, so that any person on a low wage would feel that that they have a future. How can you afford to look after a family if most of your weekly outgoings go on keeping a roof over your head? To have a decent home in order to bring up children and affordable childcare so that people are encouraged to work would make them feel that they have a future. It would encourage couples to stay together as they would to be able to view themselves as part of a normal society instead of being part of an underclass. Surely this is a human right.


  12. Pravin Navekar
    Posted 16/02/2011 at 17:33 | Permalink

    Some interesting comments, I do agree happiness and wellbeing are two different things but they do go hand in hand. Happiness I believe is individually defined and can mean different things to different people and money is not always at the top of the list. Happiness is state of being. However wellbeing seems to be suggesting a more holistic approach, one that takes into account something we tend not to talk about and that is self-esteem and/or self-worth Emotional and Spiritual Wellbeing) . So measuring wellness is about how well you can cope with what life throws at you at that moment of time. My take on happiness is that it is very transient as it is a state of being. You can be happy at one moment and next be crying. Wellbeing is more about your inner being (some call it spiritual strength) that enables you to create a positive attitude. I have been involved with wellbeing and mindfulness for many years and it can be demonstrated in the change in cognitive behaviour of people who have been long term unemployed or suffer from depression. Changing the mindset of a nation will take generations as the foundation has been eroded by successive governments promoting nuclear families, looking after number one and becoming more materialist. So the first question most people ask is what’s in it for me, when it should be let’s look at how our relationship will benefit both of us.


  13. Justbecause
    Posted 16/02/2011 at 11:51 | Permalink

    Call me a cynic, but cleverly chosen data sets and fields of measurement can allow statistics to ‘prove’ anything. Could ‘national happiness’ be a new way to justify government policies that may not appeal to the masses?

    Besides, it seems to me that how ‘happy’ someone is in their life depends largely on things like access to education, healthcare and employment and removing the threat of crime, for instance.

    Surely one of the best ways to ensure happiness is to allow people to improve their circumstances, for instance by allowing those from less advantaged backgrounds to attend universities and gain rewarding employment?

    Cutbacks have prevented this for many people, who may well be depressed because they no longer have feasible means of improving their circumstances through good and affordable education, because rates of crime are high, because the NHS does not have the funding to treat their illnesses adequately and because they can no longer afford little luxuries due to VAT increases.

    It seems to me that fostering the opinion that the government cares about happiness is just a way to distract voters from other problems in British society and economics today. I believe they would be better served devoting the funds that will go the the ONS for this study toward actually improving the lives of their voters. After all, every little helps.


  14. Posted 16/02/2011 at 10:57 | Permalink

    I think we are in danger of failure by definition. Well-being and happiness are two distinct measures. One of the points I think the panel should address on the 21 Feb.

    On religion and happiness; firstly, I have every support for anyone that wishes to follow a particular religion or moral framework provided it does not affect the freedoms of others.

    Secondly, as Emile Durkheim points out, religion makes everyone feel more equal as everyone is equal in the eyes of god, so the people with higher status are not actually in charge, that is the role of god (an interesting way to consider health inequalities).

    Durkeim also observes that religion offers a kind of contract – put up with the pain of living in an unfair world by accepting your role in life and you shall be rewarded with happiness for an eternity in heaven.


  15. Not David Cameron
    Posted 14/02/2011 at 20:24 | Permalink

    The last Government obsessed with measuring things. In the NHS, in Education and across a range of other activities. It became so obsessed with measuring processes that it took its eye off part of the bigger picture. Does measuring these processes (eg waiting times, unauthorized absences etc) make the outcomes any better (ie more satisfaction with the quality of our public services). The connection was lost. I think measuring national wellbeing is a legitimate thing to gauge in this context. Yes it’s a bit abstract but at the end of the day it’s an expression of something that we ought to be concerned about: how people feel.


  16. flatfeet
    Posted 12/02/2011 at 15:25 | Permalink

    “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?”

    No, that sounds about right.


  17. Alan Turner
    Posted 10/02/2011 at 15:33 | Permalink

    I’m all for the government measuring happiness. The interesting thing will be whether they are prepared to pursue it in an environment where unemployment is rising and living standards falling in real terms.

    Money doesn’t cause happiness, but as David argues, the personal devastation of unemplyment can certainly lead to unhappiness.

    The government may just finding itself inventing another indicator that is in decline.


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