The UK government wants to monitor our general levels of happiness and subjective wellbeing.
Allegra Stratton reports:
On 25 November, the government will ask the independent national statistician Jil Matheson to devise questions to add to the existing household survey by as early as next spring.
It will be up to Matheson to choose the questions but the government’s aim is for respondents to be regularly polled on their subjective wellbeing, which includes a gauge of happiness, and also a more objective sense of how well they are achieving their “life goals”.
The new data will be placed alongside existing measures to create a bundle of indications about our quality of life.
A government source said the results could be published quarterly in the same way as the British crime survey, but the exact intervals are yet to be agreed.
There are currently different views within the government on whether all indicators should be shrunk into one single wellbeing indicator or simple happiness index.
The government already polls people on their life satisfaction but experts say the innovation is that the new tests will ask more subjective questions and will be put to a larger sample size. The combined wellbeing data set, it says, will have a more central role in policy-making.
A Downing Street source said: “If you want to know, should I live in Exeter rather than London? What will it do to my quality of life? You need a large enough sample size and if you have a big sample, and have more than one a year, then people can make proper analysis on what to do with their life. And next time we have a comprehensive spending review, let’s not just guess what effect various policies will have on people’s wellbeing. Let’s actually know.”
It all sounds very straightforward and well-intentioned. But Clare Carlisle digs a bit deeper and wonders whether it is really possible to agree on what happiness is and to measure it when you think you’ve found it. Time for some solid philosophy:
As centuries of philosophical debate have shown, happiness is neither simple nor uncontroversial – and certainly not easy to measure.
In the western philosophical tradition, reflections on what the best kind of life might be have almost always acknowledged that happiness is something we all desire. Philosophers often regard human happiness as an important criterion for deciding what is good and right, and sometimes as the main criterion. The most straightforward expression of this last view is found in the “utilitarian” moral theory pioneered in England in the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
According to utilitarians, the moral value of any action is measured according to the amount of happiness that results from it. Even for these thinkers, though, questions of happiness are not simply about how much of it there is. Mill certainly recognised different qualities of happiness: he thought that the pleasures of listening to opera or reading Milton, for example, were “higher” than the kind of enjoyment found in a good meal. Indeed, he famously qualified his utilitarianism by insisting that “it is better to be a Socrates dissatisified than a pig satisfied”. The thought here seems to be that part of the moral value of human life – what we might called its dignity – lies in the capacity to be affected by a great range and depth of experience. And this includes our capacity to suffer.
Critics of the kind of moral theory advocated by Bentham and Mill often talk about the practical difficulties of measuring happiness, which might give the coalition pause for thought. In fact, some of these difficulties were pointed out long before the rise of utilitarianism. Aristotle, for example, thought that the goal of every human life is “eudamonia“, a deep conception of happiness as long-term flourishing, rather than fleeting pleasure. This would be difficult, if not impossible, to record with questions such as “how happy did you feel yesterday?”.
Aristotle also recognised that, unlike some other branches of philosophical enquiry, ethics is not an exact science. In the 18th century,Immanuel Kant made this point even more strongly: of course we all desire happiness, said Kant, but we do not know what it is or how it will be achieved. Anyone who has pursued something in the hope that it will make her or him happy – whether this be a career path, a relationship, or a holiday – only to find it disappointing, and even a source of stress and anxiety, will know what Kant was talking about.
However, the government’s plan to measure happiness raises a further and perhaps more profound philosophical question: regardless of whether this is possible in practice, is it the best way of thinking, even in principle, about what it is to live a good human life? A clue to this idea can be found in the way a term like “utilitarian” is sometimes used disparagingly. When, for example, a course of action is described as “merely utilitarian”, this implies that something important has been overlooked. But what might this be?
Good question. I think that’s enough for one post, but you can read the full article if you want to continue into Heidegger’s answer!