Britain to launch a Happiness Index

Smiley face on a hand.


Tess Vigeland: It's been a tough week for Europeans coping with a spiraling debt crisis. But today the British government launched a plan to come up with a new measure of national progress. Prime Minister David Cameron said that GDP figures aren't good enough anymore. They tell us whether an economy is growing, but they're not a good indicator that life is actually improving. So Cameron proposed a new national index, an Index of Happiness.

From the European Desk in London, Stephen beard reports.

Stephen Beard: Prime Minister Cameron says that GDP on its own is far too crude a measure of national success. It doesn't take account of social issues, the environment or the quality of people's lives. Today, he asked government statisticians to come with a better way of charting the nation's progress, a Happiness Index.

David Cameron: It will help bring about a reappraisal of what matters. And in time, it will lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line but on all those things that make life worthwhile.

The index might include the rate of marital breakdown, the levels of crime and pollution. And people will be asked to take part in an annual survey rating their own satisfaction.

National Statistician Jill Matheson's confident she'll come with an accurate and useful index.

Jill Matheson: There's been a lot of work in other countries as well as here that shows that people are very good, scientifically, at being able to assess their own well-being.

Critics say happiness is too complex and elusive to pin down in a single figure. And others complain about the timing of the initiative, just as the Britain is bracing itself for a wave of job losses from public spending cuts.

Peter Allenson is with the UNITE labour union.

Peter Allenson: I think it's a very strange time to try and bring about a Happiness Index and it mirrors the concern that we have that this government doesn't know what it's doing.

Or perhaps it does. Cynics might say this is the perfect time to launch a Happiness Index. From here, it can surely only go one way -- up.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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While it's true that what you measure profoundly influences what you get, GDP works because it's easy to measure and unambiguous. None of the things you criticized it for not including fits both those requirements: any country that one party would rate high on "social issues" the other party would rate low, and vice versa, anyone with eyes can see that the biggest quote-"environmental" issues getting media attention today are poorly veiled attempts to destroy the planet's economic production capacity, and among any three experts in the field you have at least seven incompatible definitions of "quality of life." What's worse, a survey asking people how happy they are has severe methodological problems built in, ranging from the fact that happiness is like health in that often you don't realize how much of it you have until you lose it, to "response bias," the well-documented tendency of people to give answers on surveys closer to what they think the researchers want than the truth. Back to the drawing board, please!

Gross National Happiness was established in 1972 by Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, just as the kingdom was opening to the world. Credit should be given to the Bhutanese for the original concept. Good luck to the Brits.

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