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Jiehae Choi and Nathan Gamester: Can the Government actually make people happier?

Picture 10 Jiehae Choi is a Research and Program Analyst at the Legatum Institute, where Nathan Gamester also also works as a Research Assistant.

Recent media coverage has indicated that the Government will draw up a set of questions that will measure Britons’ happiness in terms of their psychological and environmental wellbeing. 

Understanding the importance of wellbeing and happiness in society has been a concern with a long history.  Aristotle famously pondered the nature of happiness in his text Eudemonia.  The American Founding Fathers included the pursuit of happiness as one of the fundamental tenets of the Declaration of Independence, and eighteenth century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who advocated for utilitarianism, argued that the goodness of an action should be judged by its consequences on human happiness.  More recently in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy emphasised the limitations of economic indicators such as the Gross National Product, in determining wellbeing, explaining that it “measures everything... except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Within the current Government, the history of this initiative can be traced back to pre-election speeches made by David Cameron and his cabinet colleagues and was formalised in the June 2010 Budget document, stating that:

“There is widespread acknowledgement that GDP is not the ideal measure of well-being... The Government is committed to developing broader indicators of wellbeing and sustainability...”

Levels of citizen wellbeing (or measurements of “happiness”) are undoubtedly important to overall national wellbeing and have direct applicability to government policy.  It is commendable that the Government aims to understand the state of the country’s emotional health. 

But if the Government desires to create policies that promote citizen wellbeing, it is important to distinguish between a citizen’s transient emotional happiness and their deeper cognition of what truly would make for a fulfilled life.

While being joyful and appreciating one’s own environmental setting is important for wellbeing, what translates moments of emotional peaks to long lasting life satisfaction is a person’s own ability to create happiness for themselves.  For, it is not simply being happy that matters, but the ability for each and every citizen to live in a society that allows them to pursue their own happiness.

In measuring citizens’ levels of happiness, will the Government take account of the possibility for this pursuit?

Wellbeing scholars such as Arthur Brooks argue that a citizen’s ability to earn their own success is the definitive factor in human flourishing.  Brooks’ thesis is that it is not about simply having more money but earning it, that makes the most difference to personal happiness.  For instance, his research brings to light the finding that between two individuals who have the same income, the one who has earned his income will be more satisfied in life.  A society in which citizens are able to earn their success will inevitably be a happier one.

In 2009, the Gallup World Poll, the most comprehensive wellbeing survey in the world, asked Britons whether they felt that they could get ahead by working hard – nearly eight out of ten reported that they could.  This measurement of opportunity is fundamental in understanding national prosperity and is included in the 2010 Legatum Prosperity Index.  Drawing on research by wellbeing scholars such as Daniel Kahneman, Carol Graham, John Helliwell, and Arthur Brooks, the Prosperity Index identifies eight foundations that are necessary for countries to foster economic growth and wellbeing for its citizens.  It includes wellbeing measures as well as more traditional economic indicators of prosperity, and based on these the UK ranks 13th out of 110 countries.

In constructing a national wellbeing metric, the Government should consider questions that draw out the distinction between emotional happiness and earned success.  The nation does not need policies that try to make people happy – indeed this would be a concerning path to take – but rather policies that enable them to create their own happiness.  The Government should not miss the opportunity to tailor a wellbeing measurement that touches upon this notion of agency, which is a fundamental aspect of citizen wellbeing.

When this has been established, we will begin to see where opportunity gaps exist and, thus, where government might play a role in fostering a climate of choice and possibility in which citizens are able to pursue their own wellbeing.  The Government’s proposed “happiness index” should go further than simply monitoring general levels of national happiness. It should seek to identify new areas of policy that can help citizens pursue more fulfilling lives.


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