The dangers of measuring well-being and happiness

Dr Jenny Pickerill, Department of Geography, University of Leicester:

Dr Jenny PickerillThe state of the nation has for too long been measured using Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an economic calculation which says little about individuals’ lives. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) are now consulting on a new measure of national well-being which will give us a better picture of ‘how society is doing’. They are proposing incorporating a broad range of categories that might shape our sense of well-being, including income and wealth, job satisfaction, conditions of the environment, crime, health and education among others. While preferable to GDP there are many dangers in this move to measuring well-being: in the scale at which it is to be quantified, in the things that will be measured and in the ways it might ultimately be used.

Regional statistics have long been available for measures such as crime, health and education across Britain. Indeed, just a few weeks ago street level crime maps were launched which enable people to examine the crime rates of their own neighbourhood – so why do we need more? The spatial spread of these basic measures is important and any amalgamation to a national level, in a society as unequal as Britain, is unlikely to give much indication of the variety of the problems and especially their causes. A measure of national well-being should not be a measure by which we gleefully compare ourselves to others internationally, but one which forces us to confront how far we still need to improve at home. If we compare many of these measures at a regional level it is possible to examine some of the structural causes of high crime rates, poor education attainment or bad health: is it correlated to low income, poor investment in health facilities, or a polluted environment? If we only examine these measures nationally this ability to understand their causes, and thus potential solutions, is lost.

But of course to make these comparisons we need to have chosen the best factors to measure and this is where it gets very tricky. For a start there is the complexity of trying to measure social participation (also called social capital). Despite many pronouncements that we suffer from political apathy in this country (evidenced by low turnout rates at elections) we have a vibrant protest culture and, in the main, a cultural acceptance of the need to voice our opinions on things that matter to us. Yet measuring people’s ‘ability to have a say on local and national issues’ (as suggested by the ONS) will tell us little about people’s well-being. It is not that we need more opportunity to ‘have a say’ but that people need evidence that they are being listened to. This is an entirely different measure. A sense of well-being can come from a feeling of inclusion in decisions being made. This is more than having elections or referendums (even if they are local as is being proposed in the Localism Bill, and instead rests on the need for demonstrable impact of people expressing their views.

Similar problems emerge when we look at the proposed category of ‘present and future conditions of the environment’. We know surprisingly little about the complex relationship between well-being and the environment, especially perceptions of future conditions. ONS currently use indicators of air quality, consumption of domestic electricity, and access to green space as some measures of the environment. Defra’s Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) mix housing and road conditions with air quality and green space in their measure of ‘environmental equality’. In other words, we currently use a hotchpotch of potentially unrelated indicators to measure the environment. What is it about the environment that affects our well-being? How might we measure the rather intangible experience of enjoying the fresh outdoors; the feel and look of the landscape, abundance of trees, or of working the land, playing football in the rain, encounters with wildlife, or growing your own vegetables? We need to think more creatively and broadly about what it is that environment brings to debates about well-being and then how best to measure it.

Perhaps most worryingly though is the ultimate consequence of measuring well-being on a national scale. What is it that we are going to use this data for? Richard Layard, an advocate of using happiness rather than economics to measure society, has suggested a number of ways in which we could improve happiness in Britain. While he rightly suggests that it is our relationships with others and how we feel we ‘fit’ into society which matter most in generating our happiness, much (if not all) of the responsibility for changing our happiness is directed at the individual. The focus on positive psychology and the use of drugs to control mental health, Layard’s call for a ‘moral education’ and his arguments that mobility (moving house, changing family structures) decrease well-being, all point to a suggestion that there is a preferable way to be happy. That is that happiness is created by a stable nuclear family, an established set of morals (determined by whom?), and that we have the responsibility to think ourselves happy. As such this measure could easily be corrupted for political ends – a vision of society as a conservative one-size-fits-all approach where if you are ‘unhappy’ it is your fault. This abdicates any collective responsibility for those who suffer from mental illness, ignores the value of diverse and complex communities, blames individuals if their families are ‘broken’ and fundamentally ignores any structural causes for inequality in society. As Sara Ahmed argues: “happiness is found where it is expected to be … in certain places, those that approximate the taken-for-granted features of normality”[1]. In other words happiness is available to those who do the right things and make the right life choices (such as complete the right education, choose a good job, have robust relationships with their family).

There is a danger then that we simply replace the individual quest for greater income with the individual quest for greater happiness and in the process ignore the important lessons that a focus on well-being could teach us. That is that people like to be part of something and to feel a sense of belonging; they like to be in communities. Communities can, of course, be created by individuals coming together but they often need state support, either financially to build communal spaces or at the very least in removing some of the obstacles to their collective activities (such as eco-communities wanting to build, or the use of public space for festivals). We need to be careful to ensure that increasing well-being is a collective endeavour and not another individual aspiration in which we can compete as to who has the most. As Layard notes we “are deeply social beings”[2], and thus well-being is not about ‘personal and cultural activities’ as they are categorised by the ONS, but should reflect a far broader collective approach to life. It is not simply whether individuals care for each other, but whether we have created collective structures (such as social centres, unions, community centres, sports clubs etc) that care for the individual too.

For all that communities are important however, we have to enable diverse communities and acknowledge diversity in how we attain and experience well-being. It is important to critique generalised assumptions about ‘what makes us happy’, to value unhappiness, and prevent adoption of moral definitions of what constitutes the good life or social ideals. If we don’t there is a danger that we blame individuals for their lack of well-being and we create ideals in which many people will not fit. Their remains a significant danger not just that we will construct a measure of well-being that does not reflect its complexity, but that we will create a promise of happiness that few will ever achieve and which, by default, will reduce others’ sense of life satisfaction. Let us not create another way in which to compete with each other and instead look to more supportive and collective ways of living.

Dr Jenny Pickerill is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester. In 2009 she co-edited the book Low Impact Development: The future in our hands.

She has also written for Leicester Exchanges on ‘Climate Change – deny, prevent or prepare?’: We have to adapt culturally to climate change

[1] Ahmed, S (2008) The Happiness Turn, New Formations, 63, p.9

[2] Layard, R (2005) Happiness: Lessons from a new Science. Penguin Books, London, p.225

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