Happy Talk

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The financial crisis has led to GDP being questioned as a valuable measure of progress within societies. What was clear even before the crash was that beyond a certain level, the effect of wealth on happiness is negligible. But should happiness automatically dethrone GDP as the defining statistic of a country?

Some evidence suggests otherwise. Setting aside problems in measuring happiness, how happy we are may have little relation to the objective circumstances of our lives – even if they seem dire. A study of 65 people with locked-in syndrome (paralysis apart from eye movement) found that 72% described themselves as happy. The participants lived in France and Belgium, who have comparable OECD life satisfaction ratings of 51% and 76% respectively. Some selection bias of participants may apply, and the statistics measure slightly different things, but the rate of happiness in the locked-in syndrome group alone is remarkable.

The findings seem to point to people adapting to their circumstances mentally – the longer a person had lived with the syndrome, the happier they were. If people can accept such a comprehensive change to their life with little effect on their happiness, surely smaller problems encountered in everyday life would not have any greater effect on happiness.

Life satisfaction does vary widely even between OECD countries however, so some combination of national characteristics must be the cause. The argument can be made that happiness is enough of an end in itself to be taken on as the goal of government policy, regardless of whether it correlates with objectively desirable statistics like health and wealth. But if we tend to mentally compensate for adverse circumstances by remaining happy, happiness on its own would be a useless guide for policies which seek to ameliorate those circumstances.

David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have both committed to considering measures of happiness in future policymaking, whereas Bhutan replaced GDP with gross domestic happiness decades ago. The OECD take a more gradual approach, by including life satisfaction as one of 11 statistics which constitute its Better Life Index. When taken with some of the other measures, which include education, work-life balance and environment, the index appears less open to attack over whether it gauges the most important aspects of a society. And national nuances in the wording or interpretation of the happiness question are much less likely to skew the figures. The OECD created its index to involve citizens in policy-making by allowing them to choose the most important topics. The inevitable caveat: It remains to be seen whether governments follow through on their avowed intent, and act.

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