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).

I’ve cobbled together numerous different Australian surveys with similar questions. Here we might have seen a decline in happiness after 1970, but apart from a possibly rogue poll in the mid-1990s it has been pretty much flat since the early 1980s.

An article I wrote for the IPA Review a few years ago set out several reasons why this area is likely to be largely immune to new policy measures.

Some of the most important correlates of high happiness – extrovert personality, strong social relationships, religious beliefs – are inherently very difficult for even the most determined nanny state to steer.

While well-being is affect by external factors that government can influence – such as the state of the economy, health, and personal safety – these are all long-standing policy concerns. It’s very unlikely that happiness research will tell us anything new about how to achieve them.

2 thoughts on “Will David Cameron’s happiness survey have any policy relevance?

  1. I think you’re selling the data a bit short. There’s a discernable upward trend in Luxembourg too, tracking the Danish quite closely. There’s also a consistent downward trend in several countries from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, followed by a recovery over the next decade.

    It’s definitely noisy, but it doesn’t appear to be just a random walk – features like the simultaneous sharp rises towards the end of the series seem to indicate that it’s measuring something real.


  2. Caf – I don’t think it is a random walk – I think there is a link with the business cycle and there are assocations with major national events. With the business cycle, it reduces one of the biggest causes of unhappiness, unemployment, and once prosperity takes hold optimism spreads. On the other hand, adaption theory would predict that after a while most people get used to higher living standards and head back towards their ‘setpoint’ of happiness.

    The graph is a little hard to read, but it looks like Luxembourg did dip back to 1980s levels for a while. Denmark seems to have had a 15 year period where the results were consistently better than the previous 15 years.

    I’m never quite sure how seriously we should take unusual micro-states like Luxembourg in social science – whether they have important factors that cannot be replicated in larger-scale societies.


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