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What is happiness and can it be measured?

4 December 2010

What are we to make of David Cameron’s recent announcement to introduce a “National Well-Being Measure” in the UK?  Perhaps we welcome an index which may not be  based on material wealth, something more spiritual…  Or could it be just another way to waste 2 million pounds of taxpayers money at a time when the country has so little to spare?

Is it the government’s business anyway?

I think it is right that the focus should not be only on GDP, exchange rates, profit margins, FTSE, consumer spending, imports and exports, etc.., so there is a point to be made even though so much of society seems to derive so much of its happiness from consumerism.  However, we already have many other measures which could be expected to influence subjective perceptions  of well-being:  crime rates, insolvencies, divorce rates, abortion statistics, NHS waiting lists, unemployment, number of days lost through industrial action and ill-health, hours spent watching TV, number of people taking anti-depressant drugs,…  Of course, most of these measures would be negatively  related to well-being, and perhaps it would be wrong to assume that anyone not affected adversely is otherwise “happy”.

What makes a person happy?  Perhaps a survey would reveal this, but it seems a very difficult thing to measure in any objective way. When I am asked “How are you?”, my response will  often depend on who is asking (as well as how tired I am; how well I slept last night).  It will rarely be a considered view taking into account all that has happened in the last year (or the last ten years, if the question is asked only in the national census).  I have recently completed a “well-being” survey at work, and several colleagues have commented that the questionnaire does not ask them the questions that they want to answer. In such a subjective arena, there is always the danger that the choice and wording of questions will not reveal that which was intended.

Apart from highly subjective measures such as “how happy are you?” or “do you feel valued as a person?”, one could ask a whole list of other questions.  This could reveal to the government WHAT MATTERS? (!) to society, but any attempt to summarize all responses into a single measure would be very difficult.  Moreover, how would we interpret a score except in relative terms?

I note that 2 years ago the UN (unicef) issued a report on the well-being of children, collating previous measures of material wealth, family and peer relationships, health and safety, behaviour and risks, an objective educational sense of well-being, and a subjective measure of well-being.  In this report the UK came last (of 21 developed nations), and this should give us – as well as the government –  some cause for concern.

Well-being is not a phrase I have come across in my Bible, so how might we interpret this from a Christian perspective? In the NIV, the word “happiness” occurs 6 times. Interesting examples include “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (Eccles 2:26), and his master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt 25:23).  So it would seem that happiness (the pursuit of which is one of the unalienable rights of people enumerated in the US Declaration of Independence) is something that we should value. Another way to view well-being is “Contentment” which appears 3 times, most notably “godliness with contentment is great gain” (I Tim 6:6). Of course,  “joy” is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and so by implication, measuring joy – or any other fruit for that matter – in my life (assuming I could do that) would indeed be a useful spiritual health-check.

Charles Taylor

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