The ultimate measure of progress or skirting the issue…? Thoughts spurred by the Third UN World Happiness Report

Katherine Trebeck, Global Research Policy Adviser (@KTrebeck)

The growing pool of wellbeing and happiness research reveals some interesting patterns. For example, the third World Happiness Report (published April 2015 and edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs) is informed by Gallup data which asks people to position themselves on a ‘life evaluation ladder’. The results show Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia at the top of the happiness rankings. At the other end of the scale, pretty intuitively, the worst performing countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, with the addition of Afghanistan and a Syria – many of which have experienced terrible war and terrorism.

The authors identify differences in social support, incomes, and healthy life expectancy as the most important explanatory factors. But they were able to assess only a small set of variables and could not take account of issues such as unemployment or inequality (due to lack of comparable international data). Even at a glance one can posit other important factors not included in the analysis – for example all of the top 10 countries have relatively high levels of social mobility.  But that’s a discussion for another day…

Perhaps more instrumentally, just as saying a wine is ‘interesting’ doesn’t tell you how to make the wine, interest in the wellbeing and happiness data doesn’t obviously lead to better policy making. While happiness and wellbeing are compelling because they are ends in themselves (there is no more ‘because’ or ‘therefore’), policy makers lack a lever called ‘happiness’. So they need to take a step back and pull the levers that they know influence happiness. In other words, policy makers need to manipulate what Amartya Sen has called the ‘habitat of happiness’ – the context in which people live their lives and which shapes their capabilities.

Yet Lord Richard Layard, one of the report’s authors, seems to think there is a policy lever called ‘happiness’ based on his recommendation for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for people experiencing mental ill-health. While CBT can be an effective treatment, relying on it as a policy tool seems to ignore that often it is people’s circumstances that need to change.

As Will Davies (author of The Happiness Industry) warns, such prescriptions demonstrate how wellbeing has become too individualised and medicalised. You can go to the doctor and seek a prescription for stress or anxiety, rather than an explanation. The wellbeing agenda focuses too much on the individual as the agent of change (with the obligation that we become more resilient), rather than institutional or political transformation.

A little like turning up the volume on your headphones while a riot rages around you.

And this seems to point to the crux of the problem with the growing wellbeing agenda – skirting the issue, avoiding the real culprit, even blaming the victim…


On another note, I’m struck by a statement at the beginning of the report: “Governments are measuring subjective well-being, and using well-being research as a guide to the design of public spaces and the delivery of public services”.

Undeniably, governments and other statistical agencies are collecting more data about people’s self reported wellbeing….but, they do so in the context of a persistent emphasis on ‘recovery’ of the economic model that preceded the Global Financial Crisis. Though I would be delighted to be proven wrong, examples of governments actually using wellbeing and happiness data to ‘guide’ the design and delivery of policies – to the point that economic objectives are demoted – remain rare.

Instead we see the Indian Prime Minister’s plan to undercut child labour laws and other worker rights to stimulate economic growth. Or the UK Prime Minister’s promise that if re-elected he would focus on “economy, economy, economy” in the party’s first 100 days in power. Or the way the IMF criticises staggering levels of inequality because of the deleterious impact on economic growth (ie a business case, not one based on justice or fairness).

And even in the home of the World Happiness Report itself, we see the economy trump other objectives. The first Report was released as a ‘foundational text’ for the 2012 UN High Level Meeting on “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm”. While this meeting elegantly identified the need for a new economic paradigm, less than two years later, there was a tangible shift in language: now the talk was of a new development paradigm. Apparently the economic model is not up for grabs, despite it being at the heart of so many of our problems, both collective and individual, both community and environmental.

Finally, so as not to close on too much of a downer – which would be inappropriate in a blog about happiness – I do like this in the Report’s conclusion:

Economic and social life is rife with “social dilemmas,” in which the common good and individual incentives may conflict. In such cases, pro-social behavior – including honesty, benevolence, cooperation, and trustworthiness – is key to achieving the best outcome for society.

I’m just not sure we needed to wait for happiness and subjective wellbeing measures to tell us that.

4 thoughts on “The ultimate measure of progress or skirting the issue…? Thoughts spurred by the Third UN World Happiness Report

  1. Cam Donaldson

    Bang on Katherine. Nice piece. Only thing I disagree on is that I found their concluding statement, about which you are more positive, to be a bit lame.

  2. Peter Doran

    It is always worthwhile to hesitate mid-conversation and ask ourselves “Why?”

    Why are we having this conversation on happiness/wellbeing at this particle moment…in this particular context?

    No word or concept is innocent. All language is the bearer of power….power to obscure/deflect and power to liberate. The cleverest words present themselves as the height of innocence…as concepts beyond ideology.

    Wellbeing will only serve us well when taken up as an invitation…a provocation to enter the conversation without eyes wide open.

  3. Neil Thin

    Thanks for this Katherine, it’s good to make sure people join in on conversations about a)what happiness research tells us (and often doesn’t tell us) about how happiness happens (or doesn’t), and b) what some of the practical implications and normative obligations are for policy and practice as well as personal decision-making.
    You are certainly right in a loose sense that ‘policy makers lack a lever called ‘happiness’. This is, however, rather truistic, a bit like saying that ‘there is no magic bullet’ for complex challenges. The fact that processes are complex and require multiple actions by multiple stakeholders with inevitably unpredictable outcomes is no excuse for not trying.
    So I’m not clear what it is you think Richard Layard is guilty of, when he recommends CBT. As you recognize, In the the World happiness Report he recommends this for people experiencing mental ill-health. Since there’s good evidence (again, as you recognize) of its effectiveness at individual level, it would be pretty immoral not to try supporting it. But what do you actually mean by saying that Richard Layard recommends ‘relying on it as a policy tool, and what’s your evidence that this is what he is advocating?
    More generally, what’s your evidence for your claim that ‘the growing wellbeing agenda’ is ‘skirting the issue, avoiding the real culprit, even blaming the victim’. I’m sorry to say this sounds like to me a lot like 1970s-style sociologese, sneering from the sidelines and handwringing impractically about generalised abstract social badness. Of course inequalities and social injustices are bad for everyone’s wellbeing, but that’s doesn’t provide a very convincing argument against trying to learn practical lessons from wellbeing research.

  4. Julia Steinberger

    Very good blog. Despite many good (i.e. solid social and economic rethinking) intentions of subjective well-being proponents, there is a tendency to drift towards the traditional blindnesses of psychology and neo-classical economics, including focusing on the individual. Objective well-being and a focus on human needs/capabilities squarely puts the burden on social enabling of individual functioning, which is much sounder.


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