February 24, 2011 11:27 pm

Statisticians to study UK public’s happiness

Researchers will soon be able to pinpoint the UK’s saddest borough after the Office for National Statist­ics explained how it aims to measure national wellbeing.

In an effort to track how people feel – and not just how financially well-off they are – the ONS will, from April, start to question 200,000 people a year about the quality of their lives.

Responding to a call from David Cameron to investigate broader indicators of wellbeing beyond measures of economic output, new questions are to be added to an existing survey in an attempt to gauge the UK’s happiness, because “there is more to life than GDP”.

People will be asked to rate their feelings on a scale of zero to 10 in response to four questions: How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Rich rewards

Previous research, such as that carried out last year for government officials , suggests richer people tend to be happier and enjoy better mental health, that the young and old tend to be happier, and that women feel better than men.

Little variance in regional happiness has been found, once wealth and job status is adjusted for, but the south-west appears to be the UK’s happiest place.

The survey will enable the ONS to develop a national happiness index for each quarter, and help the government track wellbeing at a local authority level. It builds on studies by the Nobel laur­eate economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen for Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, into how best to measure happiness, and is one of the first big official projects in a populous country to track wellbeing.

The move is part of efforts by the ONS to look at issues such as inequality, pollution, health and quality-of-life indicators. Data will be ready in July 2012.

Academics and pollsters have long sought to measure well­being on the basis that pure cash measures of economic activity often miss the things people value, such as personal relationships or local environmental problems.

Advocates of “happynomics” argue that wellbeing statistics can be put to good use in guiding policy.

Working out what makes people happy can be used as a yardstick to allow the ranking of policy options, by placing, for instance, greater emphasis on unemployment and mental illness – key areas of concern in happiness surveys.

“I think it is helpful in deciding what policy should be focused on,” said Jon­athan Portes, director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.

An official said the prime minister had asked Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, “to look at what needs to be done to ensure the new measure is properly embedded in policymaking in the future”.

But Andrew Oswald, a specialist in the economics of happiness at Warwick University, advised the government to beware leaping to policy decisions. “I would emphasise a bit more caution and wait another decade because we are still learning about the patterns,” he said.

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