Monday, 15 November 2010

Wealth and/or Happiness?

I'm going to do something pretty unusual in these parts, say that I think David Cameron has done something good. (Interestingly, the one time I agree with him, Liam the Tory man seems to disagree) His plan to introduce a Happiness Index, as devised by two economic Nobel laureates, is a great idea in principle (IF done properly), though I'm not sure he'll like the results.

For a long time, the only thing anyone has been interested in is how much and how quickly a country can make money, a massive jump in GDP was all that mattered. But what people are realising is that more money doesn't make for a better society, it doesn't mean a happier electorate, and that more money for a country doesn't usually mean more money for everyone in it.

We should take more of an interest in how the people of our country are getting on, and not just assuming that all is well because the money is rolling in. The last decades may have seen a jump in wealth but they've also seen a jump in the amount of mental illnesses people suffer from. If more money is bought in because people are working harder and longer with no time for family life is that a price ever worth paying?

This isn't going to be a case of asking people to fill in a form that says, 'How happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?', which would clearly be useless. It's been shown that there are reliable ways to measure subjective happiness and well-being which are meaningful to those interpreting what they mean. New policy shouldn't just be judged on what happens to the economy, but on what happens to society as a result.

Looking at these measures will hopefully lead to a renewed focus on just how unequal our society still is, and that will be reflected in people's feelings. It's well known in psychology that being richer isn't what makes people happier, it's how they compare to their peers that matters. Someone on £21,000 whose social group includes many people on lower incomes will be happier with their current state of affairs than someone on £50,000 who socialises with millionaires.

A society where everyone feels they have a fair shot at getting on in life would be the happiest, we can't rely on the trickle down effect any more where the rich rule the roost and tell the rest to be happy with their lot because they are making money that will benefit everybody. It just isn't true. For every extra £100 earned as a country, £40 goes to the top 10%. 13% of our national wealth resides in the pockets of just 1% of the population. I'm not advocating communism here (that seems to be the buzzword for anyone who wants to attack the left) but simply a fairer society where you earn more based on merit, rather than coming from a privileged background.

The Tories who deride this are right on one thing, it's the exact type of policy that Cameron would have ridiculed if it had come from Labour. We might yet have a bizarre situation where Cameron is trying harder to convince Tories that this is a good thing than he is with the opposition.

It will be hard to get a reliable measure of how policy is affecting us as a society, but it can be done, and should be. It will be an extra tool available to see just how society can be made better for everyone in it. And if nothing else it shows one thing, we're finally realising that there is more to measuring the successes of a nation than the narrow and flawed notion of GDP.

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