OPINION26 November 2010

Happy rulers: what will the government be measuring?

News Opinion

The UK government wants to measure national wellbeing, but asking people how happy they are is plagued with pitfalls, says author and consumer behaviour consultant Philip Graves. Even satisfaction is fleeting, he says. Humans have evolved to keep running on the treadmill of progress rather than stand back and say, “Yes, that’s perfect”.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be sat across the breakfast table from a Brazilian lady, both of us having just landed after transatlantic flights. She is unquestionably one of her country’s “haves”, prosperous, well educated and personally motivated, in a nation that has a wider poverty gap than most. But she wasn’t happy and she wasn’t viewing her future with much optimism. She was reflecting on the penniless Moroccan boy she’d encountered in the preceding days during a trip to the Sahara. He appeared to her full of joy and entirely unperturbed by his poverty. How, she wondered, might she discover some of his happiness?

Within this exchange is, perhaps, much of what we need to know about happiness. It’s relative, it’s contextual, it’s transient, it’s relatively easy to observe in others and, when you haven’t got it, it’s as elusive as a lubricated eel.

Philosophers have conjectured on the question of happiness in a bid to help others (and perhaps themselves) discover it. The absence of a universally accepted guide suggests it’s not a simple matter. Some, like Mark Rowlands, have suggested that part of the solution might be to live in the moment. Just as his irrepressible but seemingly positively disposed pet wolf did. On this basis could we gauge happiness by identifying those people who live in the moment, perhaps by establishing how many have made no provision for their future by way of savings or pensions? I suspect this wouldn’t dovetail with government policies.

How happy do you think you are? The answer, I suspect, depends on two factors: your fundamental emotional disposition and the context of the question. In the moment of asking, which half of the optimist’s glass will you choose to focus on? Numerous psychological studies show that how we respond to such questions is influenced by what should be extraneous variables. If, as is proposed, questions to measure happiness are to be included in the General Household Survey, responses may very well be primed by the other topics asked first: questions about the respondent’s home may trigger associations with interest rate changes; asking about the type of heating they have may prime them to think about recent fuel cost increases; the combination of media coverage and question priming may produce apparently significant swings in the data that wouldn’t have existed if the same questions had been asked in isolation.

Even if the questions are placed in a dedicated survey people may still be primed by a media obsessed with publicising domestic bad news. The reporting of news is, I would contend, becoming increasingly more graphic, more brutal and more salacious. Trends in the nation’s happiness could be attributable to our changing media consumption habits or tastes. Were this to be factored in to the study and subsequently identified as a causal link it would raise the entertaining prospect that the government’s drive to increase happiness could be achieved through wide-scale censorship of the media.

Personally, I’m not convinced that happiness is the right emotion to be targeting in this well-intentioned project; I suspect that it is satisfaction that motivates us and delivers us a sense of uplifting reward in life. Satisfaction is contextual. It can be self-defined or framed by society (or as is often the case, a combination of the two). It might be reaching the end of your first 5k fun run, or running 43 successive marathons; it could be passing your exams (except if everyone passes because they’ve been made easier) or a successful bit of DIY in your kitchen. It is constantly reframed. Having achieved one goal our contentment lasts only so long before we find ourselves moving on to another small challenge (or else we can be left feeling like something is lacking); our achievements seemingly arrive with a shelf life. In evolutionary terms this makes perfect sense. The meteoric advances of Homo sapiens illustrate that we are forever pushing the boundaries – it seems we’ve evolved to keep running on the treadmill of progress rather than stand back and say, “Yes, that’s it; perfect. We can stop now.”

So might satisfaction (or happiness) be defined by the existence of individual goals and an accompanying sense that they are achievable? The X Factor shows us that there is a fine line between having a goal and being hopelessly deluded about one’s prospects of realising it. Self-reported analysis is perhaps not to be trusted.

As someone who advocates the importance and reliability of observable, behavioural measures, do we know what happy people look like? What do they do? And what do happy people do that unhappy people don’t? It would be a much braver (or wiser) person than me who sought to define the manifestation of our values in such terms. Perhaps, in the end, this is the wisdom we hope for in our politicians. In the quest to measure happiness I believe that we need to define the goal much more clearly. It’s likely to lead to the design of a much more satisfying study.


Philip Graves is a consumer behaviour consultant and author of the book Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumer Behaviour and the Psychology of Shopping (recently named one of Amazon UK’s top ten best business books of 2010 ).


12 years ago

This is like a massive caustomer satisfaction project. The thinking behind it is pretty sound, I have to say, but the number of varibales involved is mind-boggling. Chaotic even. Seems like Dave's been reading some of the business literature and thinking such as this: http://www.slideshare.net/missrogue/happiness-as-your-business-model-414463 Whether he can apply it to UK plc, actually find a way of measuring and uncover the drivers of happiness and then turn those into tangible actions remains to be seen. It's hard enough in any company over 50 employees...

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12 years ago

Actually, this is not so very difficult. There is a huge body of international literature around subjective well-being, happiness and its drivers. In South Africa, we developed a robust model as far back as 2003, which has been presented at various international conferences. We have refined it for use in employee commitment studies as well. There are a number of recognised international experts in the field. Of course, turning it into action is the more difficult process - the measurement is easier.

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