Opinion seems to be divided about the idea of the happiness index.
I’d welcome it with open arms if it actually meant the Government was going to take it seriously – it’s what I’ve been suggesting for a few years (for example Buying happiness, Establishing values, What is money for?). And bearing in mind what is possible for charities and this site to do for nothing, £2 million could give some pretty impressive results!
The sceptical part of me sees three issues. What is probably going to happen is:
- The people in charge will be political appointments who don’t know anything about psychology at all. Like the people who present property investment programmes on TV they’ll be big on celebrity status and small on actual knowledge of the subject. That will mean they get lots of “good TV”, warm and fuzzy rubbish and ignore the science (see the Diener/Biswas-Diener book in the values section of resources)
- Or they’ll be political appointments who think they know all about it and will ignore the existing research (see the Seligman and Csikszentmihaly books in the values section of resources) and devise their own “index of happiness”.
- And the political appointee will probably have great credentials so they will be made to look like an expert, but any expertise is in the wrong area. So, like the Conservative party bringing in US advisers on behavioural economics, they’ll forget that they have UK psychology expertise available on happiness.
So the worry is that, since they are already talking to Lord Layard, who is a professor of economics, not psychology, they are already going down the “it is politically expedient rather than useful” route. I’m sure Lord Layard is a very clever chap, but economists do tend towards a “the average family has 2.4 children therefore policy should be….” approach, when I’m not sure anybody has ever seen a family with 2.4 children! It ignores individual differences which are a standard part of psychology – everybody is unique, so what makes one person happy will bore or irritate another, but economics doesn’t have the tools to deal with that because it isn’t the science of behaviour or people, it is the science of money.
And it isn’t simple to “measure happiness”. Seligman, Csikszentmihaly etc. spent years working out methods to do it accurately, Diener is a world authority on “subjective measures” (i.e. how people feel) about happiness so there is a lot of expertise available that a lot of people in the UK have. But they are psychologists (like me) not economists and certainly not people who have the ear of political appointees.
So the Prime Minister has the chance to set policy that is really useful, that prioritises the happiness of the population, that uses UK resources and knowledge and that recognises genuine expertise. It would be nice if that’s what he did, rather than go for “the usual suspects” and make the whole exercise one of futile political point scoring, wasted money and superficial “happiness promotion”.
So come on Mr Cameron – have the courage to use the expertise that exists, don’t settle for the “Tony’s cronies” approach and stick with your political mates.