The UK Asks, How Happy Are Its Citizens?


In 2010 Britain’s conservative government announced the development of a happiness index to measure progress and track the nation’s well-being. The project—the first of its kind in the UK—is intended to inform civil servants as to what makes people happy, and then aid them in considering happiness when forming public policy. Early study results have shown that efforts are needed to reduce loneliness, improve work-family balance, enhance public spaces, strengthen relationships, and staunch a growing culture of consumerism. Former head of the British Civil Service, Gus O’Donnell, tapped by the Prime Minister to lead this effort, talks with Solutions about how it is going so far.

The British aren’t exactly known for their sunny disposition. How has the effort to integrate happiness into policy gone over with the population?

The prime minister’s made it very clear that he thinks there’s a lot more to life than just economic growth. Most recently, he launched in November 2010 a measurement of happiness. And the biggest thing we’ve done is take a sample of 200,000 people and hold 175 meetings around the country. We asked people what matters to them in terms of their well-being and we ended up with four key questions about life satisfaction, whether people feel their life is worthwhile, how happy they feel, and how anxious. We published the preliminary findings and we’ll have more findings in July. Initially, we’ve found that Northern Ireland turns out to be the place that’s the happiest. We found out the young and the old are happy, but in between not so good, which is interesting. So we’re getting interesting results that we’ll work on.

Have you encountered any cynicism about your efforts by those who feel that happiness is a fluffy term?

There is always a sense of cynicism, especially when the economy is going through a tough time. So when our GDP numbers are showing no or little growth, there are people who say, “Well, this is just a distraction.” Actually, it’s not. It’s a program set in place that’ll be in place a long time and, as we go through this process, the economy hopefully will return to growth and people will see there’s more to life than the GDP figures. I’m very struck by Joseph Stiglitz’s comments about the U.S. economy, where GDP has gone up, but happiness hasn’t moved. And a lot of that comes down to the fact that the distribution of income has changed quite dramatically, with median income levels hardly moving at all.

What prompted this survey in 2010 in Britain?

The prime minister was very keen on what he called big society. It’s about community. It’s about individuals taking responsibility, giving individuals more information to make more informed choices. And he’s pushed the idea of behavior change, some of the “nudge” policies. We’re looking at well-being as a way of—even in times of austerity, when we don’t have much money and we’re trying to reduce the deficit—finding ways to help people improve their lives. There are lots of things we can do that don’t cost money, and which we should really work on. We know that, for example, one of the worst things you can do for people is leave them on unemployment or disability benefits, and not give them help getting back into work, because with work their self-esteem goes up, their happiness goes up, and that’s better for the economy as you have people working and paying taxes. It’s a beautiful, virtuous circle.

It does also sound like you’re taking a page from the conservative playbook there. Wouldn’t business reform also play a role in making people happier?

I wouldn’t say that. It’s an all-parties agenda. What you’re trying to do is help the people who have well-being issues—people with mental health problems, the unemployed. If you want to increase happiness and well-being for society, you have to look at the bottom end first, the most disadvantaged. So I wouldn’t say it’s associated with any political party. All parties feel strongly about this.

At the time of this interview, you’re currently attending the UN High Level Meeting on Well-Being and Happiness in New York. Have you learned anything from this conference? Do these types of conferences play a role in changing policy?

Yes, I think so. We had a big meeting yesterday, when global experts came together and we heard a psychologist explain what drives individuals’ well-being, and how they can measure it. There’s an enormous amount going on. It’s an area to me that is a bit like climate change ten years ago. We’re starting to take it seriously. We’re starting to understand how we can measure it. If you treasure it, measure it. At the first Rio summit people were talking about the tree of life. But we didn’t have good, clear measures of whether this was really happening. And having the measurements sorted out, you’re seeing people moving into the policy space. On well-being and happiness, we’re a few years behind, but we’re going down the same track.

Isn’t happiness hard to determine? What kind of research went into devising the questions used to evaluate happiness?

There’s massive research. The psychologists tell us that one way you measure life satisfaction is to ask, “How happy were you yesterday?” And you do it on a ten-point scale. So we use the best statistical procedures, which are comparable across countries.

What about the looting that occurred in London last year?

One of the really interesting issues is that, for the first time with the ONS [Office of National Statistics] work, we will be able to get well-being measured, broken down by small enough areas, so we can look at how the areas where there was looting measure in happiness. Because, remember, the events in the summer were specific to certain areas. There were deprived areas that didn’t have any looting. We’ll be able to look at whether there was a relationship between well-being and the looting. When you look at these issues at the global level, one big issue in the UK was whether to get involved in Libya. The Gallup people have been doing a lot of work around thriving and they have been asking questions in Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt, and they found that GDP was going up, but indications of thriving were going down. And so, if you like, they were a good predictor of some of the events that happened in the Arab Spring.

So is it predicting more looting in the UK?

We don’t know yet.

Can government policies produce happiness?

I think that’s the wrong way of putting it. It’s not just about governments, it’s about people. So providing that information will give information about how happy you are and about raising people’s aspirations, that it doesn’t need to be like this. If you live in one area and see another area that has the same economic standing but much higher levels of well-being and happiness, we can ask ourselves the question: well, how come? What are we doing well that they’re not? People can look at it in the same way they look at and compare schools. It’s not just for governments, it’s for people, too.