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New quest in British politics: public happiness

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 17, 2007


Once upon a time, the hot-button issue for politicians in rich countries was "the economy, stupid."

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But after decades in which Western nations have gotten richer but not necessarily happier, a new performance indicator – harder to measure and more elusive to deliver – is beginning to emerge.

Some simply call it happiness. The more scientific term is subjective well-being (SWB), a composite of factors including income, health, environment, relationships with friends and family, education, recreation, and faith.

Economists on both sides of the Atlantic believe they are getting good at measuring it, and now the political class in Britain is beginning to take it seriously.

"There has been no upward trend in happiness despite the fact that we are richer, healthier, and have longer holidays." says Lord Richard Layard, an economist and advisor to the British government on happiness. "That is the challenge to government policy and to our own lifestyle."

According to happiness rankings by the United Nations, European Union (EU), and magazines like the Economist, the top 5 is normally dominated by the likes of Norway, Iceland, Australia, Ireland, Denmark, and Switzerland. G-7 countries fare less well; Europe's richest troika – Britain, France, and Germany – languish.

British politicians are starting to ask why. In Britain, surveys consistently show that people are no happier than they were 50 years ago, though incomes have tripled since the 1950s.

A poll last year found the proportion of people saying they are "very happy" had fallen to 36 percent today from 52 percent in 1957. Four in five people said government's prime objective should be the "greatest happiness" not the "greatest wealth."

For David Cameron, leader of the Conservative opposition, improving society's sense of well-being is the central political challenge of the era.

"Making people happier is more important than making people wealthier," says his spokesman, George Eustice. "Quality of life matters more than quantity of money; people have more money than ever before but quality of life is worse, and they get less time to spend with their families." Marriage, family, environmental care, and work-life balance are all ideas Mr. Cameron espouses.

'Department of happiness'

Tony Blair meanwhile has set up a government team, sometimes dubbed the "Department of Happiness" to study how to make people happier. An initial report, which collated international research, came up with some obvious findings, and one or two surprising ones.

"A lot of it is common sense," says lead author Prof. Paul Dolan of Imperial College London. "What do you think is going to make you happy? Spending time with friends and family."

Thus, marriage and good quality relationships are strongly linked to happiness, according to Professor Dolan's report. So are good health, exercise, going for walks, faith (of any denomination), and even casual interactions like talking to a neighbor. But living alone, sickness, indebtedness, and joblessness were all associated with poorer well-being, as were caring for a dependent and commuting.