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In hard times, is a happiness index what Britain needs?

The 1950s, when people were poorer but life was more predictable and happier, are not going to return. Unfortunately, Europeans are going to have to work harder for less money. A more equal society as existed in the 1950s is a mirage.

By any standard Britain seems to be one of Europe's gloomier countries. Britain may have become three times richer since the 1950s, but a BBC poll has shown that the number of people describing themselves as "very happy" has fallen dramatically, from 52 per cent to 36 per cent. A string of surveys and scientific reports highlights the country as full of insecurity.

So a lot of people were surprised to hear that the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, is ordering regular polling of the population to establish a measure of national well-being, inevitably to be known as the "happiness index".

Britain is not the first country to try to measure happiness - France and Canada are considering it - and many polling organisations do it regularly. But Mr Cameron's idea is that the index of well-being should be put at the heart of policy-making, balancing the usual measure of economic growth, gross domestic product (GDP), whose rise or fall is breathlessly documented in the news bulletins.

It is a brave move. Mr Cameron suggested replacing GDP with "GWB" - general well-being - in 2006 at a time when he was in opposition and busy rebranding the Conservatives, who are traditionally "the nasty party" in British politics, with a more caring image. In an age of ferocious budget cutting, with thousands expected to lose their jobs and the hopes of a whole generation of young people blighted, no one expects the survey to find much joy in the land.

There are good reasons to smash the idol of GDP. The science of economics has lost much of its authority since the crash of 2008. If the world's economists could not see that the great American boom was built on hot air, why should we treat their statistics as the touchstone of good government?

Economic statistics make no judgement as to the benefits of economic activity, which is anomalous in an age which is supposed to be reducing carbon emissions. The clean-up of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico boosted GDP with billions of dollars of spending, but the world would have been a better place without it.

The eminent professors Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, both winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics, produced a report last year for the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, arguing that GDP was inappropriate as a measure of success in a world facing a crisis of global warming.

A country, wrote Prof Stiglitz, should not be punished if it chose to take some of the fruits of increasing productivity in the form of leisure, rather than in pointless consumerism.

No lesser person than Thomas Jefferson declared in the US Declaration of Independence that "the pursuit of happiness" was one of the inalienable rights of man. The problem has been how to measure happiness, what questions to ask, and how to assess the answers.

The question "how much time do you spend every day stuck in traffic?" is easily answered. But if you have just lost your job, the answer might be zero - but that would hardly equate to happiness. More open-ended questions - "How much purpose does your life have?" - could send the respondent into a tail spin of depression.

For the record, one index of "subjective well-being" puts the UAE among the most happy nations - up with the US, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. The most unhappy, according to this index, include Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe, Egypt and Pakistan.

Gallup has been assessing the happiness of the US for decades, but the results of its surveys are an impenetrable jungle to the non-statistician. It is clear that Americans have got fatter and less healthy since the economic crisis in 2008, but not much else.

But there is a bigger problem. This idea of well-being has caught on in Europe just at the time when the old continent is in sharp relative decline. Britain is likely to drop out of the world's top 10 economies by 2015. So it makes sense for Europe to rebrand itself as a lifestyle superpower. It is already spending 43.8 billion (Dh219 billion) a year on subsidies to farmers to prop up an inefficient rural economy and keep the countryside looking pretty.

With the exception of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which launched the idea of national happiness in the 1970s, countries in Asia are not interested in measuring their success in terms of well-being. They want fast-rising economies and the best jobs for their bright young graduates, with the diplomatic clout that goes with it.

A couple of generations ago, a moderately bright European with good connections could get and keep a comfortable job in investment banking. Now these jobs go to the smartest graduates in the world, who are driven by a great thirst to succeed.

The world is now a fiercely competitive place. The danger is that Europe would use a happiness index as an excuse to sit back and take life easy, like a languid aristocrat with elbow patches on his tweed jacket. To be well-fed and happy is not a great spur to achievement. It is neurosis that drives the great entrepreneurs.

The 1950s, when people were poorer but life was more predictable and happier, are not going to return. Unfortunately, Europeans are going to have to work harder for less money. A more equal society - as existed in the 1950s - is a mirage.

It is a brutal fact that the wealth of the middle classes, as evidenced by stock market valuations, depends on major companies maximising profits by exporting jobs to low-cost countries. Increasingly it will not be just manual jobs, but better paid ones, such as the research posts in pharmaceutical companies, that will be going abroad.

Far from Europe being a happier place, the crystal ball holds the opposite: rising differentials between poor and rich, and harder work for less money for the majority. The happiness index is a nice idea, Mr Cameron, but dream on.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

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