Should happiness be a priority for governments?

Should happiness be a priority for governments?

by Kevin Gulliver – the UK Guardian

Ironically enough, Chancellor George Osborne delivered his budget on the UN-designated International Day of Happiness. Despite 1p off beer duty, there was little to cheer for those of us who want to create a society where happiness, or subjective wellbeing as economists prefer to label it, is at the centre of policy making.

Measurement of happiness and wellbeing, what underpins them, and how they change over time are core elements of the Human City Institute (HCI) thinktank research programme. We aim to publish an updatable "human city index" for all local authorities in England by May 2013 to inform the happiness debate.

As a starting point to understanding what constitute more "human" cities, HCI has chronicled a growing body of evidence about the importance of happiness and wellbeing to social and economic policy.

Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and the University of Warwick's Andrew Oswald have both recognised how levels of happiness and wellbeing have stalled in many developed countries despite considerable improvements in living standards. The New Economics Foundation has designed a Happy Planet Index to compare countries across three indicators: life expectancy, wellbeing and ecological footprint. The Young Foundation has undertaken a major research study around localised wellbeing in case study areas in England.

The government has also shown an interest in what factors influence happiness in our society; the previous administration set up the Whitehall Wellbeing Group, while the coalition has established the General WellBeing survey to sit alongside GDP as an indicator of success.

While much of the debate around happiness and wellbeing is novel, interest in these concepts goes back much further. Eudaimonic happiness originates from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and focuses on the concept of a "life well lived". The US was, of course, the first country to codify the pursuit of happiness in its constitution.

Studies comparing richer countries point to the importance of inequality of wealth and income in determining happiness and wellbeing. Countries with relatively narrow inequalities, such as Sweden, tend to express higher levels of happiness than those with relatively high inequalities. In contrast, politicians put more emphasis on personal relationships, volunteering, community life and psychological interventions to enhance happiness and wellbeing.

HCI's work has explored happiness and wellbeing in terms of sustainable human communities…

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