It was raining in Glasgow and it seemed to me that motorists were deliberately hitting those oily puddles as people walked past. They wouldn’t be trying to soak a passer-by, would they?
For once I didn’t get a splashing. And I arrived on time at the Marriot Hotel where the British Psychological Society was holding its annual conference. So I was feeling pretty happy, dry and not rushing.
I had been invited to attend a hot topic session on measuring national well-being. Where Stephen Hicks, assistant director of the Office of National Statistics, and Peter Kinderman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, were speaking.
Last year David Cameron announced that he was going to measure our well-being and launch a Happiness Index, if you will.
He said: “Now, of course we’ve already got some very strong instincts – even prejudices, sometimes – about what will improve people’s lives, and we act on those instincts. We have got an instinct that people who feel in control of their own destiny feel more fulfilled…We have an instinct that having the purpose of a job is as important to the soul as it is to the bank balance…Our instinct that most people have a real yearning to belong to something bigger than themselves”
What he wants to do is see if his instinct is right and to what extent.
Predictably some of the papers had fun with this. The Mirror, for example, “proved” that a chip buttie was all that was needed and the Treasury could therefore save millions on its survey.
Clearly it’s not as simple as that, far from it. Stephen Hicks explained the very reasonableness off it:
- It’s important for policymakers to know what matters to people
- “There’s more to life than GDP” – personal income is no longer sufficient a measure of things.
- It seems well-being is roughly based on economy, environment and quality of life – two of which you can measure with a piece of string.
- Lots of important bodies in many areas agree it would be useful to be able to quantify quality of life.· The factors that form part of the equation are reasonably predictable: age, employment, health, education, crime etc. Interestingly the number of single parent families is included and I’m not sure what I make of that.
His measurements are still a work in progress, but it seems he’s going to ask 200,000 people the following questions:
- How satisfied are you?
- How happy did you feel yesterday?
- How anxious did you feel yesterday?
- How much purpose does your life have?
He was at pains to explain that his department wants to get the process right and produce results that mean something and are actually useful. A sentiment you can’t really argue with.
Professor Kinderman took the floor and confessed that he couldn’t find serious argument with the intent or execution of the survey. And he seemed like a man who is generally fairly effective in finding argument, kicking off, as he did, with a dig about how the killing of Obama bin Laden can’t be seen to replace due process of the law.
Anyhow, it’s worth pointing out that Professor K devised the BBC well-being scale so knows what he’s about.
He made a few points about what can make an individual feel happy other than, as he said, large amounts of cocaine. They are:
- Having enough money to to meet your needs. And this, interestingly, is around twice the national income.
- Living in an equal society.
- Knowing your children have a secure future.
- Your relationships – and not just with your significant other.
- A sense of purpose or meaning.
Relationships are those with colleagues, friends and family… but especially between parents and children. Now that was interesting. He was adamant on this. “A parent’s relationship with a child determines how well he or she will succeed in the future.”
So investment of whatever kind in that relationship and the wider well-being of a nation is an investment in the next generation. Now that is a really powerful thought.
So, if you’re happy and you know it, count yourself lucky and see if you can’t help someone else get happy.
Thanks very much to Jonathan Calder (AKA Lord Bonkers) for the invite.
PS Interesting miscellany from the session included:
- Happiness is highest in young people and those at the older end of the scale. The ones in the middle are most miserable.
- People who don’t work and those who work long hours are less happy than those in the middle ground.
- Happiness is only part of the picture and well-being includes contentment, satisfaction, self-reliance, resilience and many others.
- Inequality causes great unhappiness.
Aspie in the family says
Hi there, found your blog via twitter. Thanks for updating us on your conference – it is certainly an interesting and thought provoking topic. Certainly agree that inequality causes unhappiness!
Ellen Arnison says
Hi Aspie, I'm glad you've found me. It was a fascinating subject and I'm not sure I did it justice. But yes, I was struck by the fact that inequality caused much misery.