Will David Cameron’s happiness survey have any policy relevance?

Years ago David Cameron bought into the great cliche of happiness researchers, pronouncing that ‘it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB—general wellbeing’. Now as Prime Minister he’s getting Britain’s statistical agency to ask people questions about their well-being and life goals.

As a dabbler in happiness research I like more data, and there is probably room for a bit more on the relationships between life goals and happiness. But I remain very sceptical that this kind of work can produce anything that is useful from a policy perspective, as opposed to just interesting from a social science perspective.

The whole belief that Western countries can achieve sustained and non-trivial changes in their self-reported well-being seems, with one intriguing exception, to be inconsistent with the masses of post-WW2 research into this topic. Despite the huge changes in that time period – including policy change, social change, economic change and technological change – the self-reported happiness or life satisfaction of most countries seems to fluctuate without major long term trends.

The Eurobarometer life satisfaction question below suggests that this this is true of Europe, with Denmark the interesting exception (apparently the start of it coincided with a soccer victory). Continue reading “Will David Cameron’s happiness survey have any policy relevance?”