Illustration by Sergio Membrillas

This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

"Overall, how satisfied are you with life as a whole these days? Please rate out of 10.” This is a question from new guidelines issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on how to measure happiness. Over the last three years, governments around the world have been collating treasure troves of data on how you and I are feeling. Following in the footsteps of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan state that measures its success through Gross National Happiness, policy is to be revolutionised to take account of well-being.

On one level, abandoning our obsessive focus on economic growth appears a sensible and compassionate move. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated the dangers of using GDP alone to measure a nation’s general health. Yet something bothers me. Humans have been preoccupied with the idea of happiness throughout our history, be it Aristotle’s eudaimonia or the amoral hedonism of American Psycho. Are centuries of inquiry and endeavour destined for the scrapheap, to be replaced by thick sheaves of state questionnaires? And doesn’t it seem a tad convenient that in this period of economic turmoil, governments are turning away from hard data to other, more subjective measurements of national success?

In 2011, the UN invited its members to measure the happiness of their people and use this to inform policy. Since then, there have been two World Happiness Reports, the last of which was published in September 2013. International surveys like the World Gallup Poll are supplemented by national data, although the methods vary. It’s roughly split into “life evaluation”, as in the question above, or “emotional reports”, as in “How anxious did you feel yesterday?” Browsing through the data, it can seem glib to the point of nonsense. Not many sub-Saharan Africans can be aware that their happiness has risen by 5.4 per cent since 2007. Three key policy recommendations are to increase employment, put more focus on illness prevention rather than care, and reorient health budgets to take further account of mental health. This is sound advice for stable, wealthy governments. It is meaningless to a young Christian living in Damascus. Surely Syrians and Belgians have very different definitions of “anxious” and “happy”? While there is debate over the scientific nature of economics, there is at least broad agreement on what is meant by surplus and deficit.

Despite its global aspirations, “happiness economics” is a trend of the rich world. David Cameron is a true believer, as are Angela Merkel and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye. You could say they can afford to be. Only when our bellies are full can we claim to realise that money is not enough. In 1974, a Californian economics professor named Richard Easterlin presented an idea that became pivotal to the birth of happiness economics. He found that while the average income of Americans had shot up between 1946 and 1970, this had not translated into an increase in reported happiness, which in fact had fallen since 1960. This “Easterlin Paradox”, as it became known, supported the commonsense notion that, after a certain threshold of basic needs are met, richer does not necessarily mean happier.

Now, the idea is increasingly popular among policy-makers – particularly in Britain. In 2006, the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, said in a speech that it was “time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being”. On the Left, a 2009 book called The Spirit Level made waves by demonstrating that equality of income was a far better measure of a happy society than GDP. Last year, the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband declared that the link between economic growth and people’s everyday lives is broken. The government, meanwhile, has been measuring our well-being for the last three years through the Office for National Statistics. The data appears to show that the economy matters less than we think. The latest executive summary tells us that “life satisfaction” has remained “broadly stable throughout the last decade”, while our “healthy life expectancy has increased”, despite rising unemployment and a fall in average real income.

This may be true, but is the happiness agenda merely another way for the government to shift blame from systemic failure to personal responsibility? Its findings seem incredibly useful in supporting the Conservatives’ aim of cutting back state spending – a Big Society where we all Keep Calm and Carry On in friendly, feel-good communities.

But perhaps I’m being overly cynical. Geoff Mulgan, a former policy advisor to Tony Blair, and a co-founder of the campaigning organisation Action for Happiness, certainly thinks so. He tells me that, on balance, the financial crisis has hurt the “happiness agenda”, which might have moved swifter had governments not been forced to concentrate on urgent economic hardship. He has pushed for the promotion of well-being in Britain since the ’90s and sees it as the next step of human development, whereby “people ask of their governments not just that they conquer other lands, or that they increase the trade balance, but they contribute to the happiness of their citizens.” World leaders have acted throughout history in the name of faith, blood, power and glory, while now we have the religion of the free market. Mulgan believes a focus on well-being could redirect policy towards rational progress. “At heart I would see this as a humanist project in the widest sense,” he says. “It is about humanity’s knowledge of itself, not requiring subservience to some abstract deity.” This does not mean incompatibility with faith, however. Mulgan trained briefly as a Buddhist monk, and sees the Buddhist focus on alleviating suffering as particularly relevant, as demonstrated by Bhutan.

The happiness agenda is presented as based on scientific and rational values. Yet its relationship with Buddhism and positive psychology – a branch of the science whose influence is visible in the recent focus on “mindfulness” among mental health practicioners – tells a different story. Dr William Davies of Cardiff University, a sociologist and expert in economic policy, has pointed out that economists don’t make the best philosophers. He sees the need to move away from orthodox economics, which is “failing to say anything interesting or honest about the world”. Yet he warns that happiness economics is rooted in a set of basic assumptions that aren’t being properly interrogated. “There’s a common tendency towards optimisation [i.e. tinkering with people even when nothing seems obviously wrong],” he has observed. “Doesn’t this jar with a traditional assumption, that professionals help when people need help, but don’t carry on fixing us beyond our needs?” The question “are you happy?” is not neutral. What about personal freedom? While the US has “the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in its constitution, it is anathema to many Americans to suggest that the state should do the pursuing. You don’t have to be a Tea Partier to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of governments enforcing “happiness” on us all.

Unlike Mulgan, Davies believes that the growing policy trend is part of a “questioning of the culture that led to the financial crisis”. Yet the emphasis on personal satisfaction is in some ways in keeping with individualism and hedonic greed. Look on the Action for Happiness website and you are repeatedly reminded that good works are rewarded with health benefits; a surge of nice brain chemicals. Yet the data appear to show that nations built on social democratic, collectivist values fare the best. Denmark came top of the wellbeing league in both World Happiness Reports, followed by other Scandivanian countries. There is clear evidence to show that rampant consumerism is detrimental to psychological if not physical well-being. But the language of happiness economics can sound like that of the market. We seem to be building a global focus group of the soul.

Over the last three years this focus group has been growing, with great progress made in standardising the way happiness is measured by different countries. Meanwhile figures such as the economist Amartya Sen and the psychologist Oliver James have helped popularise the movement. Yet there has been little actual implementation of happiness economics. Advocates want to spend the next decade trying to influence policy at every level, from the labour market to tax and policing. There is a long way to go. In Britain, the Treasury has made well-being a stated goal, yet it lacks evidence to work with. Mulgan is pushing for a new institution to be set up this year to help provide this, playing a comparable role to that of the National Insitute for Health and Care Excellence in health policy. Another area of growth has been in “social prescribing”, whereby doctors offer non-medical remedies to improve well-being. Still in the experimental phase, this may involve lonely patients being advised to take up fishing, or borderline depressives being prescribed walks in the park.

Much of happiness “science” boils down to common sense. We all know that life would be better if we lived near plenty of green space and spent time with our friends. There is a growing consensus that mental health has been sidelined to our detriment. “Money won’t make you happy” has been a truism for centuries. Yet this is a new and important phenomenon, as it converts these truths into terms that governments and policy-makers can understand, or at least will have difficulty ignoring. This trend could help break the hold of the greed-is-good capitalism that led to the financial crisis. It has the potential to bring the more market-friendly, growth-addicted nations in the Western world closer in tune with social democracy. It could lead to a revolution in healthcare, whereby a patient’s physical and mental health are treated with equal importance.

Yet we mustn’t forget how subjective this data is and how easily massaged. The Coalition may present our “life satisfaction” as broadly unchanged by austerity, but the latest World Happiness Report sees the UK dropping from 18th place to a miserable 22nd last year. Those asking the questions and presenting the statistics can shape the result. For some governments, it may be tempting to use “happiness” to draw attention away from the failings of political economy. Happiness economics is a tool, and its future will depend on who’s wielding it. In the spirit of the times, I ask myself a question: how does this make me feel? In percentages, 25 per cent hopeful, 15 per cent depressed, and 60 per cent anxious. Ask me in another five years and let’s compare the data.