Britain Ponders a National Happiness Index

Union Jack, Flag of Britain

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to establish a national happiness index to measure and report each quarter how the Brits feel. In announcing this scheme, the Prime Minister declared that this statistic “could give us a general picture of whether life is improving” and eventually “lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile.”

Over the years, many sociopolitical leaders have come to think of a convincing justification to try to measure the happiness of their societies, rather than just their growth rates, productivity, and other economic benchmarks. This traces back to an initiative in Bhutan four decades ago. At that time, in 1972, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in opening Bhutan to the era of modernization, initiated the measurement of “gross national happiness.” The Bhutanese culture is based on Buddhist spiritual values. According to Buddhism, happiness and the avoidance of suffering is the purpose of life. The Bhutanese government instituted a survey to gauge the general level of well-being and happiness in their country.

The National Happiness Index would be meaningful only if it includes a subjective measure of happiness in its calculation. Another difficulty is that what makes some people pleased may not necessarily be honorable or socially desirable to the broad spectrum of society. Perhaps a self-scored index of happiness, contentment, and well-being might not be appropriate, especially if it does not draw a parallel with key measures for health and leisure time. Many of the variables of a happy, well-led life are hard to identify and harder to measure quantitatively and consistently.

Will legislations that pursue the happiness agenda wind up being narrow-minded policies over the long term?

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