Photot: Telegraph/ReutersHow many people in the world are happy? Silly question, but if you were to answer, “More than last week,” you probably would not be wrong, given the spike in misery among air travellers caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Admittedly, having to camp at Heathrow airport for nearly a week is not on the same scale of suffering as living in a war zone in Afghanistan or trying to pull your life together in Haiti, but it is the sort of thing that can drastically alter the mood of otherwise contented people.

Thwarted travellers queuing up for financial compensation from airlines and insurance companies are doubtless still unhappy, while airline executives have prepared their case by grumbling about the excessive caution of governments during the crisis and they will not be consoled until they are compensated for their huge losses.

The episode illustrates at least one problem with the idea that governments should be taking a closer interest in the happiness of their citizens. If a 747 crashes after flying through a high-altitude ash cloud, killing or maiming hundreds of people, there will be a huge surge of unhappiness and anger against the authorities for ignoring safety. But if those same authorities err on the side of safety, people will still be upset at having their freedom curtailed and their comfort ignored. They might, heaven forbid, even have negative thoughts about science.

Keeping the cosseted citizens of the rich world happy looks like a loser’s game, so why would any government plunge deeper into this quagmire? The answer is that they are not actually considering any such thing.

When the King of Bhutan — who seems to have started all this — decided in 1972 that the little Himalayan nation would focus henceforth on “gross national happiness” rather than gross domestic product (GDP) he was talking about a values-based approach to what was good for people, not about what they might think was good for themselves. These days the young people of Bhutan are all chatting on cellphones and surfing the internet — it is what makes them happy; but Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinly is unhappy about the urbanization, materialism, and tolerance for violence that these media are bringing with them and is
anxious to stem their influence.

Richard Layard, a British peer and academic known as the Labour government’s “happiness czar”, certainly talks about “maximising happiness” but with the aim of correcting the self-destructive way people tend to behave when left to their own devices in a materialistic state. His writing suggests that people know what really makes them happy — in surveys they always put good family or personal relationships first — but are often incapable of ordering their lives accordingly.

And former Harvard president Derek Bok is not sure that people even know what is best for them. In a recent book he observes that lawmakers using the findings of happiness research “are relying on persuasive evidence of what will make constituents happy instead of accepting what people mistakenly think will promote their well-being.”

A lot of that evidence, persuasive or not, comes from the new school of “positive psychology”, whose best-known exponent, Martin Seligman, claimed in 1998: “We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive. We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society.”

You get the picture. Any prole who thinks that a fancy house and an income to match equals happiness is not going to get much joy out of this new version of the good life.

In fact, experts in the field tend not to talk about happiness but about wellbeing, which lends itself to more objective study and policy ideas. It is possible, in the field of health for example, to determine that a person’s liver is damaged (their physical wellbeing is reduced) from excessive alcohol consumption, even if they still think that drinking six pints of beer a day is essential to their happiness.

One thing the boffins are agreed on is that growth in GDP, or the standard of living, is no longer enough to keep the masses in a state of wellbeing. And they are right. Social economists have known for decades that beyond a certain point, increases in income or standard of living do not lead to more satisfaction with life. Now, the financial crash has made ordinary people painfully aware of just how illusory such growth can be and shown that it is high time to look for other measures of progress.

What would these measures be?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy seized the political initiative here two years ago when he commissioned a report on Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by economist and free-market critic Joseph Stiglitz. Since then the European Commission has also launched its Beyond GDP initiative, and the OECD is hosting The Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies.

The social scientists making up Sarkozy’s commission delivered their report last September. While not abandoning GDP they gave a central place to “quality of life” and various indicators of it: not only material living standards (including the distribution of income and wealth) but health, education, work and other personal activities, political voice and governance, social connections and relationships, the natural environment and security.

To improve the quality of life is certainly desirable, but it is a complicated business. The Stiglitz report says it involves addressing inequalities in society and, at the same time, “how developments in one domain of quality of life affect other domains”. Above all, policies to improve quality of life have to pass the test of “sustainability” — a central concern of the commission and one in which environmental issues such as pollution and climate change loom large. “Sustainability poses the challenge of determining if at least the current level of wellbeing can be maintained for future generations,” says the report.

Here we run into one of the biggest controversies of the day: the importance to be given to preservation of the natural environment, the significance of climate change and the human contribution to it, and the implications for population policies — amongst other things. Already this debate has demonstrated conflicts of value systems, between climate change “believers” and “sceptics” motivated by economic concerns and humanistic concerns, among others.

The bitter battle over health reform in the United States provides another example of how a quality of life issue can run up on the rocks of deeply-held values concerning the role of central government in the welfare of citizens — Americans being notoriously averse to government — and the value of life itself, when abortion and euthanasia are, or appear to be, among the things believed to advance wellbeing.

So, although there is much that one can agree with under the headings of quality of life and sustainability, this new approach to looking at happiness, or wellbeing, or social progress would intensify debates already going on about what constitutes individual and social good. Or it should, if it is not simply imposed by governments steered by the rather visible hand of social scientists.

The Stiglitz report acknowledges that values are at stake and says that we will need to have national discussions about those that affect society as a whole. We had better have those discussions or the gross national happiness of many countries is likely to fall and the fumes of discontent could be more dangerous than an ash cloud over Europe or even the carbon-saturated atmosphere of global warming.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet