Leader: If you’re happy and you know it, tick the box

17 November 2010

THE NEWS that the Government plans to monitor the nation’s happiness looked like a Sunday-for-Monday story, an initiative floated by the Government at a quiet moment to see if it would catch people’s interest. It was a technique perfected by New Labour, for whom public reaction became an essential component of policy-making. Too much adverse criticism, and the idea would be dropped. In fact, the idea of measuring the health of the nation in more than economic terms, first floated by David Cameron during his election campaign, has attracted a generally positive response.

It is possible to find existing tables and graphs that show relative happiness across the world. Scandinavia tends to score highly, Eastern Europe less well. Britain comes somewhere in the top 20, depending on methodology. This is the key: it would be a mistake to rate happiness merely on the proportion of people in a survey who feel happy. Individual well-being counts for something, but a healthy society requires more. Writing in this paper just before the election (Comment, 30 April), the Archbishops of York and Canterbury argued: “The deepest challenge is how the wealth we possess collectively is to become a real ‘common wealth’, wealth that serves a whole population, not just the powerful and privileged. This is central to the Christian understanding of what a just and sustainable society looks like. Such a society is one in which active care and compassion and the protection of those least able to protect themselves are essential features of our common life.”

Last week, Mr Cameron was visited by a group of young carers. A new survey by the BBC of 4029 schoolchildren found that one in 12 acts as a carer for a family member. This would place the national figure for young carers at nearly 700,000 rather than the 175,000 counted in the 2001 Census. Anxiety over the lack of support for home carers is just another indication of the lack of connection between the Big Society ideals and the reality of social-services cuts.

There are, of course, many factors that contribute to happiness, not least a successful Ashes series or a royal wedding — or, more generally, a religious faith. But academic research has repeatedly shown that equality is a significant element. Happiness graphs correspond closely with graphs showing a country’s income gap: the larger the gap, the unhappier the people. The Archbishops again: “Societies in which economic inequality is growing are also societies in which grave social and psychological problems abound.” If the Government wishes to gather evidence about happiness, all well and good. But this is no substitute for identifying injustices in society and remedying them, and thereby improving the common lot.

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