Bob Moon: Here’s a question to ponder: scale of zero to 10 — 10 being a state of rapture — “How happy did you feel yesterday?”
The British government wants to compile regular,
official assessments along those lines. So it’s knocking on the doors of hundreds of thousands of households across the U.K. Our series Economy 4.0 explores ways to make the financial system better serve more people. Today, special correspondent David Brancaccio looks into whether a well-being index has a place in the cold hard world of financial statistics.
David Brancaccio: First, let’s address a prejudice. Isn’t measuring happiness all a bit mushy? British Prime Minister David Cameron was questioned about this when he called for the new British happiness assessment last November.
David Cameron: If I thought this was woolly and insubstantial, I would not be bothering on a Thursday morning when I have got lots of other things to do — I have got the Swedish prime minister turning up for lunch — I wouldn’t be bothering with it!
Cameron, a conservative, says measuring progress is not just about how the economy is growing: it’s how lives are improving to create a “more family-friendly country.” As for happiness equals fluffiness, some academics now prefer “subjective well-being,” or SWB, to confer gravitas.
Nic Marks: You can call it positive mental health, you can call it subjective well-being, you can call it happiness, you can call it flourishing. Really, we’re talking about the same thing: How are people’s lives going? Are they able to do the things they want to do? These are important, critical issues for people. It is about our very lived experience.
Marks: Our best hope is over the coming years that, you know, like politicians are judged on unemployment, inflation, GDP, that they start to get judged on well-being. It’s actually how people hold them to account.
Brancaccio: Can we bring rigor to what is measured?
Marks: Well, academics have been asking questions in this area for the past 30 years and mental health surveys are very well respected in public mental health, and well-being ones are really just flipping those questions the other way and asking about the positives.
So starting this month, Britain’s Office for National Statistics is adding four well-being questions to its preexisting national survey of 200,000 people that already asks about everything from smoking to retirement planning. I take the questions and try my own survey of one household, a three-room flat in North London overlooking a tidy English garden.
Brancaccio: Overall, zero to 10, to what extent do you feel the things you do are worthwhile?
Jane Muncaster: I’m a fairly sanguine and optimistic person, so I would say eight on that.
Jane Muncaster is an archivist for the city of London.
Muncaster: Yeah, eight.
Brancaccio: And you job’s OK?
Muncaster: Job is good. We’re facing pay restraints here in the U.K. at the moment, so that’s a bit of a challenge but my job is very interesting.
Other questions include: How happy were you yesterday? She says, seven. How anxious? Three.
Muncaster says government policies have a lot to do with her sense of well-being: she mentions national health care and the promise of a government pension. In fact, the biggest doubt about the happiness project is whether it will go beyond measurement and actually shape new policies.
Gail Cartmail: It almost feels like a cruel joke.
Gail Cartmail, the number two person at UNITE, Britain’s largest labor union, says her government’s track record is more about the pain of budget-cutting.
Cartmail: How can we talk about measuring happiness when over a million jobs are going to be knocked out of our economy due to the financial decisions made by this government? That’s 600,000 public sector jobs, 700,000 private sector jobs.
Britain’s statistics office clearly has a lot of work to do. Paul Allin is in charge of the project.
Paul Allin: Our aim is an accept set of statistics and I think to get that acceptance, to get that trust, we have to demonstrate that we aren’t embarking on a political agenda but treading on what is quite a tight tightrope. Because we want these data, we want these statistics to be used by policymakers, by politicians, as well as by the public.
The first results from how people answered the four well-being questions are expected in the fall, with a regular happiness index not until next year.
In London, I’m David Brancaccio for Marketplace.
Moon: You can take a look at how the British public responded online
to what makes them happy. That, along with other ways that might make the economy better serve more people. Just find your way to David’s Economy 4.0 blog.
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