Why Measuring Happiness Matters

The recent announcement by the UK government of its proposals to measure the nation’s wellbeing is potentially a very significant step; one towards a future with more emphasis on people’s quality of life and less emphasis on how much the economy produces.

This is a journey long overdue. Indeed, Simon Kuznets, the economist who started developing the US national accounts in the 1930s, even at the time wrote: “A nation’s welfare can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Yet that is precisely what we have been doing for the last 60 years since the current framework was formalised by the United Nations in 1947.

But as early as 1968, one inspirational politician was acutely aware that this system was not measuring what matters. In a speech, at the start of his presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy gave the most eloquent deconstruction of GDP – or GNP (Gross National Product) as it was then commonly called:

“It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in the chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads … and the television programmes which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.

It does not include the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

So now it seems the UK government is actually going to start to measure something worthwhile: people’s wellbeing. We do not yet know what the questions will be, but we do know that having been given this level of endorsement, they will be asked systematically in one of the existing, large social surveys. This is crucial as it is only by the regular collection of high quality data that civil servants will start to gain confidence in this new type of analysis. They will need to start to believe for themselves what the academics have been showing for some time: that people’s wellbeing is only marginally affected by their level of income. Other social, cultural and physical conditions play a critical role.

But even more important than the actual data, is the fact that the government is thinking in this way. It has the potential to fundamentally shift the political debate away from the tired old myth that it is only GDP growth that matters, to a more rounded vision, which is so urgently needed in these troubled times. We know that our world financial system is discredited; that despite decades of attention, poverty and inequalities stubbornly remain and climate change is looming.

Our obsession with GDP has become dysfunctional – it is not serving us. It is only by going to the roots of what really matters to us – our happiness and wellbeing – that we will be able to unlock these issues. That is why this announcement is a significant step in the right direction; towards a future where people’s happiness and wellbeing is at the heart of public policy.

Nic Marks is founder of the Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation