Barataria: Should the gov’t be in charge of making us happier?

Erik Hare

Can government improve our happiness?  Can it at least measure how happy the people of a nation are and work toward improving it?  The idea is being implemented, but not as some strange leftist diversion.  The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, has been interested in the idea since he first ran for the leadership of the Tory (Conservative) Party in 2005 and has elaborated on it several times.  Now that he is the leader of Britain he has charged the Office of National Statistics to formulate the questions necessary to judge just how happy the British people are.

The “Wellbeing Project” is expected to report by 2012.  The debate on the project’s importance has, naturally, already started.

Cameron has spoken quite eloquently on the need to have such an index as an important part of a nation’s policy.  It has been known for a long time that there are times when economic growth comes at the expense of things that really make people happy – such as cheap oil coming from a terribly polluted Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being,” he said.

“Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.

“Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.”

On a personal level, there is often a stark choice between economic security or income and happiness.  From the Economist:

But sometimes people have the knowledge and the self-command to choose happiness, and they still fail to do so. That is the surprising finding of a recent study by Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz and Alex Rees-Jones, three economists from Cornell University, and Miles Kimball of the University of Michigan. They persuaded hundreds of people to answer conundrums such as: would you rather earn $80,000 a year and sleep 7.5 hours a night, or $140,000 a year with six hours’ sleep a night?

About 70% of people said they would be happier earning less money and sleeping more. Likewise, almost two-thirds would be happier making less money and living close to their friends, rather than more money in a city of strangers. In response to another question, over 40% said they would be happier paying twice the rent to enjoy a shorter commute of ten minutes, rather than 45.

But is this really the job of government?  Most of those who support the Prime Minister’s initiative agree that the most important part of the project is to include the concept of Wellbeing in the national dialogue.  How individuals choose to exercise it is generally up to them, but the economy is not something that any one person really has control over.  The standard workweek, for example, is known to make things difficult on working parents who want to have a strong presence in their children’s lives.

Those are the kind of issues that Cameron, for one, hopes to illuminate and make part of the national dialogue, influencing economic and work policy throughout the UK.

At this point there are far more questions than there are answers.  I’d like to know what you think about this topic.  Can the government at least provide insight into the overall Wellbeing of a nation through a survey, and if so what can or should be done about it?

Please follow the links above for more background, and leave your comments here.  Thanks!

This post was written by Erik Hare and originally published on Barataria. Follow Erik on Twitter: @wabbitoid.

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