How happy are we?
November 20, 2012 7:02 AM   Subscribe

The UK Office of National Statistics is measuring and reporting on more than just money as a measure of national success The ONS has started a process of measuring and reporting on national wellbeing. They've also made some very pretty animations with the information
posted by Gilgongo (11 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure I completely accept that trusting the Government is a sign of well-being. Getting that figure up and signs of mental dysfunction down at the same time could be challenging.
posted by Segundus at 7:27 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

This will only make sense if they restore wellbeing to the gold standard.
posted by srboisvert at 7:28 AM on November 20, 2012

Anything like Bhutan's gross national happiness?
posted by pracowity at 7:35 AM on November 20, 2012

Maybe the sign of well-being should be MUTUAL trust between the government and the people. Poll people on how much they trust the government, observe the governments actions (such as who is excluded from voting, how onerous "security" measures are, etc) to determine the converse.
posted by DU at 7:38 AM on November 20, 2012

I notice that when I moved house a couple of years ago it was from an area with the second-worst proportion of people with low or very low life satisfaction to an area with the third-worst rating. A small step in the right direction, then!
posted by misteraitch at 7:41 AM on November 20, 2012

If you fall short of your goals, pick something easier (or at least more nebulous).
posted by blue_beetle at 7:43 AM on November 20, 2012

Gallup has a wellbeing index for the USA. I was polled by them on election eve. I kept interrupting the nice young man asking the questions by saying, "Could you hold on a moment, please?"

Then I'd leap up out of my chair and scream something like "Take that you lying sack of poo fascist m*th*rf*ck*rs! Wahoo!" Then I'd say, "I'm back" and continue calmly as before. He was quite decent about the whole thing.
posted by warbaby at 8:03 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a stock index linked to this which can be followed instead? Just because money is not by itself a measure of happiness should not deny its usefulness for measuring happiness.
posted by three blind mice at 8:11 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jerome Kagan has a cogent takedown of the positive psychology enthusiasm for measuring wellbeing in his book, Psychology's Ghosts. A couple of relevant passages:
The popularity of the concept of well-being reflects a more general preference among American and European social scientists for extremely abstract terms that collapse diverse phenomena into a single idea. Many psychologists, for example, assert that positive emotion, usually assessed with a questionnaire, is a useful concept. This claim assumes that it makes no difference whether the positive feeling is the result of completing a difficult project, caring for an infant, having many close friends, going on a holiday, enjoying a meal, engaging in sex, possessing a large bank account, deceiving a client, planning a murder of infidels, oroutcompeting a rival for a better position in a corporation.
Part and parcel of his critique is the longstanding observation that individuals are often very poor reporters of their own mental states and abilities, particularly when the individuals don't have very good access to the determinants of those states.
The evidence reflects an emerging consensus that there is a minimal, or at best a very modest, relation between what people say about themselves, on the one hand, and descriptions of them by friends or, better yet, direct observations of behaviors or biological processes that should correspond with the verbal replies, on the other. Surprisingly, there is only a very modest correlation (only 0.20) between adults’ answers to surveys asking them how often they used sunscreen at a swimming pool on a particular day and an objective measure of the presence of sunscreen based on swabs of the skin.
Because of the financial exigencies of large-scale surveys, I'm not confident that nation-scale attempts to measure aggregate wellbeing (whatever that might mean) will have anything near an unambiguous interpretation. Kagan makes a big deal about how national measures of wellbeing are particularly suspect when it comes to cross-country comparisons (not least because of linguistic and objective differences in quality of life and type of lifestyle), but the problems are idiographic as well:
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was profoundly depressed and anxious during most of his life, failed to put down roots in any one place, was estranged from his brother Paul, had several older brothers who committed suicide, and wrote in a notebook that he could not imagine a future that contained any joy or friendship. Although these facts imply that Wittgenstein did not have many moments of happiness, nonetheless, minutes before he died he told a visitor, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” It is not at all clear how we should interpret his final verbal report.
These aren't new observations. St. Augustine confessed, for example, "I cannot totally grasp all that I am... my mind, questioning itself upon its own powers, feels that it cannot rightly trust its own report." Since the nuances of the human mind have been at least partially understood--at least respected--for at least a millenium, what might be going on with e.g. the UK's drive to measure wellbeing? As always, there are political implications to think about. Cui bono?
Replacing gross domestic product with well-being removes some of the pressure from political leaders who find it difficult to improve the living conditions of their many poor citizens. If an impoverished mother in Nicaragua says she is “happy,” perhaps it is silly for political leaders to worry about her hunger or lack of access to good schools for her children.
Most Southern plantation owners in the years before the Civil War would have reported high levels of well-being. Many Afghans are frustrated by the current level of corruption under the Hamid Karzai regime and the presence of foreign troops, and I suspect that a fair proportion were more satisfied when the harshly restrictive practices of the Taliban were controlling large parts of the country. These facts suggest that a high level of well-being, or a rise in a nation’s well-being, does not always mean that the society is more vital, more productive, or more just.
How happy are we? I have no idea. I have no idea what the question means, why we would want to ask it, how we would go about answering it, or how we would interpret a putative answer to the question. Least of all when the government is asking.
posted by mister-o at 8:56 AM on November 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm 100% behind claims well being isn't in itself analytical, but really why not measure it comprehensively and gather some stats on where impact is? Mefi statisticians I will fund your well run surveys!
posted by bystander at 2:58 AM on November 21, 2012

No really, if you know how to run surveys, call me...
posted by bystander at 2:59 AM on November 21, 2012

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