Friday, 27 July 2012

Exactly How Happy Are You?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just published its first Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results. That's a happiness survey to you and me. It's based on questions around how satisfied with life we all are, broken down by location, age, ethnicity, relationship status and the like. It's been some time in the pipeline and I can't let its appearance pass without comment.

The popular press picked up on a few tasty snippets like happiest parts of the UK (North Yorkshire scores pretty well, if you're interested). But for me the big question is So What? What is the government (or others) actually going to do with these figures? Learning and improvement should be part of any evaluation, so how does it feature here?

To be fair, the question is not forgotten. There's a stated intention to use the data for policy-making as well as monitoring (and international comparisons!). The aim is to help decide which future policies or spending priorities will have the most positive impact on happiness.

How this will work in practice is much less clear though. ONS refers to a couple of research reports, but these are detailed academic studies which do not address policy issues in any detail. No examples are suggested of what sort of policies might be influenced, or how Ministers will pick this up. And there's not much cause-effect stuff to understand why some parts of the community are happier than others.

So I await further developments with interest. Will the government abandon its obsession with GDP, and with knee-jerk reactions to the latest media hype, and instead develop long-term strategies that make us all feel happier and more fulfilled? I'd love to think so, but I have my doubts.

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