Can the happiness index makes us happier?

The UK Government is planning to publish regular measures of the UK population’s happiness.

On the surface, this seems like a good thing. We all know that measuring income alone is unlikely to capture well-being, but can measuring happiness really lead Governments to better policy decisions?

What do people really want?

Studies show that people’s opinions on what would make them happy don’t correspond with what they say they would choose to do. We don’t even really know whether people do choose to maximise their happiness, or whether it’s one goal among many. So how much weight should a Government base on trying to maximise happiness?

It’s all relative

It’s intriguing that this initiative has been pushed by Conservative politicians in the UK. No doubt they are hoping that the results of the happiness surveys will support the nebulous idea of a “Big Society“, where charities do more and Governments do less. But a very clear pattern from studies on happiness is that people care about how well they are doing compared to others: it’s all relative.  Some would argue that this means we should reduce inequality in society – hardly a natural Conservative position, although perhaps they have been mellowed by their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

(It isn’t at all clear whether greater income equality is the key to this issue though – see “Getting Ahead of the Joneses“)

How does the number make you feel?

An interesting question is whether publishing a statistic itself could affect happiness. How would you feel if you found out that everyone else was ecstatic? Would it make you feel less satisfied with your life, or more optimistic? Happiness isn’t like income: it’s an emotion, and it’s contagious.

The thought of a happiness measure itself may have made me slightly happier today.

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