The Pursuit of Happiness

David Cameron has recently announced and, due to widespread scepticism, defended the coalition government’s decision to introduce a national £2m government funded ‘happiness-index’, to gauge the happiness of the British people.  The Office for National Statistics is to formulate questions for a household survey, to be carried out up to four times a year.  Cameron has previously hinted at such an ambitious project.  In 2005, soon after becoming Conservative leader he said: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – General Well-Being”.

One could dismiss the government’s happiness-index proposals as woolly, blue sky thinking, politically calculated to coincide with the continuing instability of the Euro Zone, the winter student riots or the new year VAT rise.  Alternatively, one may insist quite the reverse – that these factors render the proposals an even more pressing concern.

Yet, behind the political dimension, lies a deeper and fundamental philosophical issue – what is happiness, and importantly, as Philip Johnston writing in The Daily Telegraph asks, how can we measure it?  Whilst philosophers have traditionally concerned themselves with the happiness of the individual, how should a country judge the happiness of all its citizens collectively?  How can governments attempt to measure such a seemingly subjective emotion?

Increasingly, Western governments, organizations and academics are stepping up to this challenge and beginning to question the usefulness of traditional economic measurements to judge the well-being of their citizens.  The “idea of happiness”, writes Johnston “both as a science and a specific aim of national policy, has only taken off in the past decade or so”.  This has, in turn, led to an explosion in the number of ‘quality-of-life-indices’, from the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) to the Happy Planet Index (HPI).

Indeed, both the Canadian and French governments have previously considered a similar happiness index.  The latter had commissioned two Nobel Prize winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to research it.  The result was the so-called Net National Product (NNP).  Moreover, interestingly, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has used, for decades, a Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) as an alternative to GDP to gauge the well-being of its citizens.

As it stands, the likelihood is that governments will gain all but a superficial insight into the emotional well-being of its citizens.  However, as one pessimist wrote, “my worry is, should governments find out what makes us happy, they’ll try to tax it.”

Follow this link to access a wealth of information from Wiley-Blackwell’s inaugural Exchanges conference ‘Wellbeing: A Cure-All for the Social Sciences’, including journal papers, keynote speech podcasts and more.

Related Articles:

Well-Being: Psychological Research for Philosophers
By Valerie Tiberius, University of Minnesota

By Peter Goldie, University of Manchester

Emotions in Continental Philosophy
By Robert C. Solomon, University of Texas at Austin

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