The measure of happiness

Posted on February 6, 2012


Feeling blue?

It’s that time of year again. December’s festive bickering over the last Quality Street and Auntie Marge’s gin-fuelled racist rants at Christmas lunch have passed through the January-depression-memory-adjuster, leaving only fuzzy memories of family bliss and jolly games of Scrabble around the log fire. You’re reminded that it’s February, you haven’t kept any of your new year’s resolutions and the mince-pie thighs are still expanding. You now resemble a walrus.

Or so the media, detox-diet advertisers and the creators of last month’s ‘Blue Monday’ love to tell us every bloody year. I, for one, am feeling quite chipper. Not having mulled wine foisted upon me at every opportunity is actually quite nice, and I’m loving snow-speckled London, but if one more person strikes up an ‘isn’t it cold?’ conversation with me, I may have to tear my face off. Or theirs.

It’s this time of year that always reminds me how talented we are at pinpointing potential doom and gloom, and talking about it. At length. Abraham Lincoln, on the elusive nature of happiness, once proclaimed: ‘Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.’ This couldn’t be more pertinent for our nation of whingers.

Which is why I had mixed feelings when David Cameron announced his ‘Happiness Agenda’ last year. The new policy unveiled plans to assess how happy Britain is, with the results allowing each local authority to compare and contrast the happiness of their residents. The idea is for Government policy to be able to react to the results.

On the one hand…hooray, at last! A ray of light in the otherwise murky swathe of miserable funding cuts and right wing policies that rained down on Britain. Suddenly the Government was talking wellbeing indexes, cohesive communities and beaming families. All the right noises were being made, it was brilliant, we were to be saved. But on the other hand, how on earth would it be possible to measure how happy we actually are, when half the time we’re not even sure what wellbeing really is, and the other half there’s simply no time to think about it because we’re too busy moaning about the weather?

Ah, happiness. What does that even mean and how can we measure it?

Fear not, readers. Last year, between April and August, 4,200 adults filled out a happiness survey, drawn up by the Office for National Statistics – and Cameron’s journey into the unpredictable lands of happiness and wellbeing began. It seemed we were to be gifted with some concrete, actionable answers.

Except the results painted a very confusing picture for British psychology. According to the survey, most Britons report being satisfied with life, with work troubles and finance issues eclipsed by happiness gained from children, relationships and where people live. However these results sit in stark contrast to recent NHS research which reveals the use of antidepressants in England has increased by 28% in just three years, with depression now costing the economy a staggering £11bn a year.

Confused? Me too. Clearly it’s not that easy to pinpoint exactly what’s happening to British mood. The ONS is preparing to publish a larger survey off the back of its initial findings, covering 200,000 people, but I fail to see how ploughing £2 million of public money into this can be a workable means of injecting joy into British hearts.

To me, survey results are always contentious. Who are they talking to? What if these people are all like Steve from HR? (You know, racist Steve.) Why do the findings always seem out of touch with reality? Add to the mix an extremely subjective focal point that’s difficult to define or quantify, like happiness, and you have yourself a very questionable set of data. Two hundred thousand people is a pretty whopping survey, but this still doesn’t even cover one percent of Britain’s population.

Unlike economic growth, happiness isn’t tangible. You can’t plot it on a graph, nor can you make neat year-on-year comparisons to illustrate your country’s burgeoning sense of wellbeing and contentment. Certainly, taking the focus off GDP and looking at how to boost wellbeing is a step in the right direction, but less charting, and more creation of happiness please Mr Cameron!