The Real World

January 2011 The Psychologist, 24 (1), 9.

The UK government has recently announced that it wants to measure happiness. Not everyone is happy with this. There have been two criticisms in particular. The first contends that this is a latter-day version of ‘let them eat cake’: although people are losing their jobs, their welfare, their public services, this is of little consequence as long as people are smiling. The second argues that the whole idea of measuring something like happiness is “woolly and impractical”. Objective data like GDP and the FTSE-100 index are fine. But it makes no sense to give indices of subjective psychological states the status of scientific data.

Surprising perhaps, the latter criticism has even been voiced by psychologists. For example, writing in The Guardian, Oliver James dubbed self-reported ratings of happiness ‘meaningless’, in large part because they are poor predictors of important things such as people’s mental and physical health.

Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that this simply isn’t true, one might retort that ‘objective’ measures of economic performance are themselves highly problematic by this criterion. But there is a more important point to be made. That is, happiness, most of us would agree, is important not as a means to something else but as an end in itself. Hence the key question is not “what does happiness predict?” but “what predicts happiness?” — and one can only answer this question if one has taken the trouble to try to measure happiness in the first place.

When one does, the literature of social and economic psychology provides us with some fascinating insights. Notably, since the pioneering work of Frederick Herzberg in the 1960s, researchers have repeatedly found that the quality of one’s social relations is a far better and more robust predictor of happiness than is one’s wealth. Indeed social relations have a powerful (and under-appreciated) impact on all aspects of our well-being. To take but one stark piece of evidence, in his influential book Bowling Alone, Robert Putman reports extensive research which shows that the health-related benefits of joining just one social group are equivalent to the negative effects of smoking.

But there is an important proviso. The impact of social relations on happiness is particularly evident for the affluent in affluent societies like ours. This is because people find it hard to focus on others if they are cold or ill or hungry. What is more, in order to be able to participate in social networks you need a transport infrastructure which allows everyone to get together, warm and comfortable spaces in which to meet, activities around which to socialise, resources to take part in those activities. In other words, public services and private wealth have a role to play in making relationships possible.

So a focus on happiness is not about ignoring economic realities. Instead it is about providing a human criterion against which to decide how to deploy and distribute resources rather than treating economic outcomes as an end in themselves. It needn’t be about covering up the cuts. Indeed, it can be a tool to reveal the real human costs of taking away the services that people need to be part of society.