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Jim McConalogue: Why the Prime Minister’s ‘Happiness Index’ is a European plot

David Cameron has said “From April next year we will start measuring our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving, not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life. … We’ll continue to measure GDP as we’ve always done, but it is high time we admitted that, taken on its own, GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress.” The PM asked the Office for National Statistics to develop subjective measures. It seems that potential indicators will include health, levels of education, inequalities in income and the environment. David Cameron’s ideas seem overwhelmingly similar to proposals by the European Commission on measuring GDP.

Margarida Vasconcelos at the European Foundation informs me that the European Commission previously put forward its plans in a report entitled ‘GDP and beyond, Measuring progress in a changing world’, adopted in September 2009. The Commission has stressed that GDP is not a welfare measure and it does not measure environmental sustainability or social inclusion. Consequently, the Commission wants to complement it with other statistics such as information on greenhouse gas emissions, loss of natural landscapes, air pollution, waste generation, and health.

The Commission is intending to develop indicators to measure progress in delivering social, economic and environmental goals in a sustainable manner. The aim is to assess national and EU policies on whether they are successful in delivering the abovementioned goals. The European Commission intends to change how economic success is measured and proposes to implement five actions to achieve those aims. The Commission is planning to develop a comprehensive environmental index and improve quality-of-life indicators. The aim is to publish such index in parallel to GDP in order to assess EU and national policies deliver the level of environmental protection, which is expected. The Commission will also consider developing comprehensive indicators of quality of life and well-being.

The Commission has pointed out that GDP and unemployment figures are published on a timely basis but not environmental and social data. They will therefore endeavour to produce environmental and social data more rapidly. The Commission wants to put in place a more accurate reporting on distribution and inequalities in order to allow a better definition of policies on social and economic cohesion.

They have been developing, along with Member States, the EU Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) in order to monitor progress on the objectives of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS). However, according to the Commission, SDIs are not always based on the most recent data. Hence, the Commission is planning to develop a Sustainable Development Scoreboard in order to allow an identification of environmental trends and a benchmarking of best practices. The ‘Happiness Index’ appears to be very much part of that.


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