Putting numbers on happiness – new efforts to measure well-being

GDP and income have long been criticized as extremely limited measures of well-being. When I asked my long-suffering 16 year old son Finlay over breakfast what makes people happy, he suggested a playstation (consumption), having kids (parental alarm bells), and a combination of friendship groups – a small tight-knit inner circle, and a wider group of people who ‘know who you are’ so that you ‘get included’. Contributing to unhappiness were divorce rates, and ‘when you can’t do something’, whether through inability or prohibition. Finlay’s list underlines the inadequacy of income as a measure of the ‘good life’.

Discussions of well-being are cropping up all over the place: Barack Obama highlighted the politics of different approaches to measuring progress in his Denver convention speech; in the UK opposition leader David Cameron has committed his party to pursuing ‘a General Well-Being that goes beyond economic prosperity’, and Richard Layard of the LSE has achieved prominence with his book ‘Happiness: Lessons from a New Science’. In France, President Sarkozy has set up the ‘Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ (aka the ‘Stiglitz Commission’), which reports next year, and the OECD club of rich nations has launched an ambitious effort to ‘measure the progress of societies’.

The OECD project has three main goals – reaching agreement on
· What to measure
· How to measure progress
· Ensuring those measures are used

It aims to achieve this through a combination of publications, research and events over several years. Lots of innovative ideas, and a quite open mind on new approaches – for example setting up a ‘wiki progress’ along the lines of the OECD’s wiki gender. The project’s next big moment is the ‘3rd OECD Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy’ in South Korea in October 2009.

It’s often hard to work out why certain issues acquire prominence at a given time – in this case, perhaps it’s the growing evidence that prosperity does not lead to increased happiness beyond a certain level (Layard puts it at a GDP per capita of about $20,000 – the level of New Zealand). It may be born of disillusionment with the failure of the long economic boom of recent years to make people happier (in which case, the end of that boom may sap some of the interest). The OECD captures the sense of malaise:

‘Despite high levels of economic growth in many countries, many experts believe we are not more satisfied (or happier) than we were 50 years ago; that people trust one another – and their governments – less than they used to; and that increased income has come at the expense of increased insecurity, longer working hours and greater complexity in our lives. Much of the world is healthier and people live longer than they did just a few years ago, but environmental problems like climate change cast a shadow over an uncertain future.’

Projects like these should help policy makers grapple with issues such as vulnerability, volatility and inequality, which too often get sidelined in conventional measurement and policy debates, and yet are increasingly recognized as central to development and ‘the good/bad life’. They may also influence the inevitable ‘what comes after the Millennium Development Goals’ debate when that finally takes off, probably around 2010 on the tenth anniversary of the launch of the goals.

It’s an open question whether whatever replaces the MDGs should be another indicator, or something entirely different (such as a new approach, based on listening to poor people’s experiences of poverty, perhaps). Einstein had a sign over his desk reading ‘Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted’ and in some ways I wish we could abandon the cult of measurability and look for other ways to assess progress. But policy makers (at least those not indulging in dubious forms of ‘policy-based evidence making’) will always need evidence to weigh up one possible path against another, and so numbers and indicators will remain important. So Oxfam is going to get involved and take part in the OECD project – I’ll keep you posted.

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2 Responses to “Putting numbers on happiness – new efforts to measure well-being”
  1. Chris

    Duncan this Amazon.co.uk Book Review of David Boyle’s 2001 Book ‘The Tyranny of Numbers’, is probably relevant here.

    “The 1988 film Drowning by Numbers contains a scene where a boy is asked why he is counting the hairs on his dog. He answers “To see how many there are”, incredulous at the stupidity of the question.
    David Boyle may not cite Peter Greenaway’s film, but he would surely concur with its title. The premise of his irreverent, witty and passionate treatise is that we’ve lost sight of the non-quantitative character of life, suffocated by the number-crunchers and their churned-out reams of statistics. At a swift canter, he summarises the major historical human figures in the counting game–Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Edwin Chadwick, Charles Booth, John Maynard Keynes, David Pearce–mostly in terms of their eccentric personalities, which he makes as ironical and twinkly as their pursuits were methodical. Bentham yearned to calculate human happiness yet ended up, stuffed, in a university lobby, while Booth, who collected heroic amounts of information about the London poor, never quite worked out what to do with it. Beyond the cosy gossiping, Boyle has the more serious intention of countering the solemn, pseudo-scientific jargon that he believes is inducing a “pervasive blindness” in our perception of the world, where a commercial value is put on everything, physical or abstract. This undignified shoehorning is causality gone mad, he contends. At the time of Clinton’s impeachment, figures were produced to show that 84 percent of those in favour of his trial were consumers of Campbell’s Soup, while Burger King customers were largely pro-Clinton.

    What does this prove? Whatever you want, as long as you’re not taking it seriously. What does need to be taken seriously, Boyle contends, is the growing lack of imagination and, by extension, wisdom, to accept and interpret or reject this sludge of figures. Intended as no more than a polemic, his book exceeds its brief. It entertains as it rails, and is packed with wonderful literary quotations and anecdotes, and regular bizarre measurements (for example, “Gry”: a very small archaic English measurement the size of a speck of dirt under a fingernail). Subjective, digressive, unquantifiable and priceless. The one thing to count on is that economists will hate it. David Vincent

    Too often we try to quantify what can’t actually be measured. We count people, but not individuals. We count exam results rather than intelligence, benefit claimants instead of poverty. The government has set itself 10,000 new targets. Politicians pack their speeches with skewed statistics: crime rates are either rising or falling depending on who is doing the counting. We are in a world in which everything is designed only to be measured. If it can’t be measured it can be ignored. The problem is what numbers don’t tell you – they won’t interpret, they won’t inspire, and they won’t tell you precisely what causes what. In this book, David Boyle examines our obsession with numbers. He reminds us of the danger of taking numbers so seriously at the expense of what is non-measurable, non-calculable: intuition, creativity, imagination, and happiness.”


  2. Wayne

    Just to say I do agree with Chris’ comments about measuring the un-measurable. But there is evidence to suggest that whatever people understand by questions about their happiness, they do tend to give consistent responses. So a little like Robert Persig’s musings on quality (“Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”), we may know it when we see it, but have a hard time defining what it is.

    Recent research in the UK and Germany using longitudinal survey data suggests that individual happiness (or at least how people respond when asked about their happiness in surveys) is pretty much constant over time. ‘Shocks’ to happiness such as pay rises, marriage, child birth and getting books finally published, have only a short-term impact and we quickly revert to long-term mean level of happiness. This does suggest that at a national level increased individual income or life expectancy might not have much long-term impact on Gross National Happiness. So money really cannot buy you happiness, but you can rent it for a while.