National happiness measurements don't correlate with anything
The BBC's Sunday ethical debate show, Big Questions, debated the politics of happiness last Sunday. They initially invited me along as a sceptic voice, but I think they chose to go with someone from the Institute of Economic Affairs instead - and actually he did a good job, as you can see here (it starts 30 minutes in - and the show will only be accessible online for a few days unfortunately).
The IEA representative makes the valuable point, also made by Paul Ormerod in the IEA's excellent new book on happiness economics, that it's not just that our happiness levels don't correlate with GDP. They don't apparently correlate with anything.
Many happiness economists, like Richard Layard or Andrew Oswald, argue that governments should pursue more of a Scandinavian economic model of higher job security, lower inequality, and higher state spending - because Denmark often comes out on top of international happiness measurement tables.
But look at these two graphs that Paul sent me, which come from the IEA book (if you can't see the graphs in your browser, they're on page 47 of the book, which you can access here). The first is happiness versus public expenditure in the UK. As you can see, state spending has risen dramatically since the 1980s, while happiness has remained flat.
What about happiness versus inequality? Again - inequality has risen sharply since 1980, while happiness has remained flat.
You see people in the debate trying to use happiness rhetoric to support their particular political or religious positions: 'happiness is about working together', 'happiness is not about money', 'happiness is about Jesus Christ', 'happiness is about equality' and so on. We all have our own understanding of happiness and we're all certain it's true for everyone. Unfortunately, national happiness measurements don't shed much more light on this ancient debate - because the measurement tool is simply too blunt, and because humans adapt to their situation and their level of daily contentment stays more or less the same, except in moments of real chaos.
The guy from Spiked magazine also makes a good point - why should we grant authority to 'happiness experts' to tell us what happiness really is? Why should we be forced into their bureaucratic model of happiness? Mark Williamson of Action for Happiness replies: 'This isn't about clipboard-wielding bureaucrats telling us how to be happy'. Yes, I'm afraid that's exactly what it is - or at least, it's what the politics of well-being can very easily become.
Yet I do believe there are valuable things we can learn from 'experts': psychologists, certainly, but also philosophers, novelists, humanitarians, religious leaders. Why, for example, do people so often come back to great thinkers like Aristotle and John Stuart Mill when they think about happiness? It's because they thought about the same question, and came up with some excellent attempts at answers.
It's a question of finding the right balance between the 'experts' and our freedom to disagree, to challenge their expertise, to find our own definition of well-being. That's what Aristotle tried to do in his Nichomachean Ethics - to find a balance between our common opinions about happiness, and the views of the experts (ie philosophers like him). Perhaps he ended up erring too much on the side of the expert, and didn't find the right balance, but it was a decent attempt. John Stuart Mill also tried to find a balance between the authority of experts and the individual's freedom to disagree. We're still looking for that balance.
I think group discussions like this show are actually a good way to get us to think about these questions. I much prefer group discussions like this about the nature of happiness and well-being to someone telling me they have all the answers.