Sunday, 28 November 2010

Legislating for Happiness?

As Ken Dodd reminds us, happiness is a gift, so it is odd that a Government making ‘state gifts’ - grants and benefits – more conditional, is keen to start measuring happiness.

Yes, as we Greens have been saying for sometime, measuring economic wellbeing by the rate at which we consume resources is shortsighted in a world with limited resources. It doesn’t make sense that a flood or an oil spill mark increases in economic activity.

And a financial system which depends on ‘market confidence’ remains subjective, even if those subjective view are ‘anonymised’ by the abstraction of ‘the market’. As someone said, money was created to obviate the need for trust between people - but you still need to be able to trust in the system.

So yes – the present method of measuring the economy is obsolete and needs to be replaced.

And – yes, we need efficient and productive use of resources, but in an engineering rather than an economic sense, and we need systems which conserve and re-use resources, and draw more heavily on renewable resources.

But we also need to assess ‘social and environmental’ well-being, and the New Economics Foundation, amongst others, has developed several indicators for this. But the aggregating and weighting of the various components of these indicators carries embedded policy decisions (a bit like the Index of Multiple Deprivation).

Then again, we need to recognise the difference between standard of living and quality of life. Studies show that above a certain level of income, subjective contentment does not correlate with income. On the other hand, a high quality of life can be achieved when living quite simply.

Happiness and contentment are states of mind, like tranquillity, and all we can do is try to create the conditions which bring about those mental states. But – we need to identify those conditions first.

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