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I saw Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, in conversation with Lord Richard Layard at the LSE this evening. I’ll write a longer piece this Friday, but it was interesting to note his take on whether and how governments can measure well-being.

He was effusively introduced by Layard as ‘the leader of the well-being movement’, and the man who had first inspired Layard to believe economists could measure well-being. But he himself was surprisingly cautious and pessimistic about the whole national well-being measurement project. He said:

There are many different ways of achieving well-being. How you compare those different approaches on a scale is something I don’t know. If well-being is truly multi-dimensional, then policy-makers will have to make judgement calls. It’s a value judgement which aspect of well-being you decide is more important.

That’s a very important point, and one that I’ve tried to make as well. Your definition of well-being involves value judgements and moral judgements. Someone who believes in God, for example, will have a different definition of well-being to someone who doesn’t. Likewise, one person’s definition of well-being might emphasize feeling good, while another’s would emphasize doing good.

And yet our government has very eagerly embraced the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘science of well-being’ – in other words, that we can arrive at a value-free definition of well-being, which because it is value-free, governments can simply impose on their populations without a vote or any ethical debate. This is a real mistake.

So, I asked Kahneman, has the British government been hasty in embracing one particular definition (a utilitarian definition) of well-being that we all have to accept and fit into? He replied:

It’s a matter of temperament. Your government is full of optimists like Richard Layard. I’m more pessimistic. If I was doing it, we’d be waiting a long time before we made any decisions. There will be trade offs, and I have no idea how you’d assess the trade offs. And I find the idea of a single measurement of well-being very complicated.

He was also pessimistic about how much governments can do to lift national well-being levels (however they define it). He said:

We should know that the levers of policy that are available to governments are not going to make a huge difference. The impacts will be small and local. The main factor for our individual well-being is heritability. We can train people to be slightly happier, but only to some extent. I am more focused on reducing misery than promoting happiness.

So the ‘leader of the well-being movement’ is very sceptical about attempts to collapse well-being into one index measurement, and sceptical about policy-makers’ hopes that such an index could help governments have a major impact on our happiness levels.

Why is it British journalists and policy makers always fawn so helplessly over every visiting American psychologist (Martin Seligman, Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Goleman) and fall over themselves to turn their latest ideas into policy? We’re like a banana republic, handing over the keys to government to any foreigner with a book deal and a fancy job title. ‘You are from Ivy League college? Wow, is great. Please to write us constitution, yes?’

Kahneman is far more humble and cautious than others – but the likes of Seligman, Thaler, Goleman and David Brooks have barely cleared customs before they’re having a major impact on British policy. Whatever happened to British pragmatism, caution, and awareness of the limits of government?