OPINION16 September 2009

Measures of happiness


As GDP comes under the spotlght for being too narrow, let’s not underestimate the importance of other measures and the role survey research can play.

Yesterday’s FT had two lengthy stories on the inadequacies of the GDP as a narrow measure of success. “GDP branded a poor gauge of progress” examined the report from the Commission on Economic Performance Measurement, headed by Joseph Stiglitz, and another “France to count happiness in GDP” reported President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to persuade other countries adopt these reporting reforms as France is doing. It formed part of my reading on the long flight back from South Korea.

Happiness is a word that crops up frequently in South Korea – and it appears surprisingly often in official literature and publicity. It appeared in the highly polished video presentation at the start of the IWIS09 workshop, organised by Statistics Korea. Compiling official statistics was, amongst other things, ‘helping to increase happiness in Korea’.

It came again after the conference was over, and as one of the group of international delegates, I was was treated to very generous hospitality by Statistics Korea, as they laid on a ‘Cultural Tour’ of Daejeon and Seoul. The first stop was the Statistics Museum – yes, there actually is such a place – at the Government Complex in Daejeon.

View of exhibits in the Statistics Museum in South Korea

The Statistics Museum in Daejeon, South Korea

Our visit to the museum started with another video enthusing about the value of statistics to the public. ‘Increasing happiness’ was again presented as one of the outcomes. We asked how they saw happiness. “Happiness is about building a better future, about how things become better than they were in the past,” one of the people accompanying us from Statistic Korea explained.

This is an advanced country which not only suffered brutal occupation by the Japanese from 1910 to the end of the World War II but then the bitter and extremely destructive Korean War with North Korea between 1950 and 1953. South Korea founded its governmental statistics service in 1948, and the museum was full of early paraphanalia from census and survey gathering activities. For me, the most interesting glass case contained an 80-column punched card counter sorter from the 1950s and then a 9-track half-inch  mag tape and tape drive from the 1960s. There were also glass cases containing long and complicated paper questionnaires – which all in all seemed the best place for them. I could now see how online surveys were contributing another increment to national happiness.


Yesterday’s survey technology – an 80-col card counter-sorter and 9-track mag tape drive and media

South Korea is about as capitalist a nation as you can get – yet embedded in their psyche is that one of the most important outcomes of this progress is happiness, though improvement in personal circumstances and a better way of life for all. It feels as if Europe and North America are running to catch up on this one. Still, it’s a good omen for survey-based research. After all, how else do you measure happiness?