Thursday, 3 March 2011

Measuring the Unmeasurable (Part 1)

Albert Einstein once said: "Not everything that matters can be counted. Not everything that can be counted matters."

Few would argue with the second statement. The raft of recently withdrawn performance targets bears witness to the futility of much of the counting the public sector has undertaken in the past few years. The first part of Einstein's quote might be questioned however, particularly by David Cameron if he wants to measure national happiness.

Part of the problem lies in the nature of measurement. It was Disraeli who allegedly coined the phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics", though I personally prefer Vic Reeves version: "84.9% of statistics are made up on the spot!" Issues arise not with measurement as such, but when we try to reduce everything to numbers.

In fact there is nothing new to measuring something as intangible as happiness. The former King of Bhutan famously declared in 1972 that "Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product". Since then his country has measured its people's happiness based factors which, whilst founded in Buddhist philosophy, reflect components that are internationally recognised as contributing to human happiness. These components (sustainable development, cultural values, natural environment and good governance) are still easier to state than to measure precisely, but they act as the foundation of the way that particular society operates.

The point is that we should not expect to measure happiness, or other intangible human attributes, to a number of decimal places as we might measure distance, temperature or other characteristics of the world around us. Measuring happiness only becomes useful if we can say whether or not it is improving, and can influence the factors that cause that improvement. The maxim "don't ask a question unless you know what you're going to do with the answer!" applies perfectly here.

Getting meaningful information on human happiness thus comes down to two aspects:

  • understanding the factors that cause people to feel happy or otherwise

  • understanding how we can influence these factors and hence make people happier

The first of these is not hard to appreciate. We cannot for example measure the 'niceness' of the weather as a single figure, but we can measure factors like humidity, temperature, wind speed and sunshine that influence our perception of the weather. The same applies to happiness except that some of the factors here are more subjective, or could be prioritised differently by different cultures.

The second factor - influencing - is harder, because it involves anticipating both the short-term and long-term impact of the decisions we make. For example, we already prohibit access to certain land areas to preserve wildlife and natural habitat. Taking this much further, by excluding people from large areas of our national parks, would undoubtedly yield benefits in terms of sustainability for future generations. But in the short term it would make many people unhappy by denying them access to areas and pursuits that they enjoy. Similarly, alleviating unemployment through costly government subsidies may increase happiness for those who benefit, but could be outweighed if the longer term economic impact of such spending adversely affects the whole population.

Moreover, some of the indicators on which such policy decisions have to be based may themselves be intangible: how can we measure sustainability, motivation, or communication for instance? It's a complex issue but the starting point is something I would like to offer as an alternative quote to the Einstein original:

"Everything can be measured in some way. Nothing (other than simple counting) can be measured with perfect accuracy."

In other words, it's not about trying to reduce everything to numbers but about how we can gauge and influence what will be widely accepted as improvement. Assessing progress rather than trying to measure absolutes, if you like.

This was Part 1. "Stay tuned" as they say, and I will develop this argument in more practical detail with my next blog.

Check my web site at for more information and ideas.

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