Heaven knows we're miserable now

15 Nov 11
Claudia Wood

Wellbeing measurements are not a luxury we can ill-afford in a recession. They will help ensure we all emerge from it happier and healthier

Successive governments has been concerned with the emotional wellbeing of the UK population. The previous government appointed Richard Layard as its ‘happiness tsar’. But David Cameron has taken a more ambitious stand by co-opting an entire organisation – the Office for National Statistics – into the pursuit of happiness. Or rather, the measurement of it.

In 2010 Cameron announced that the ONS would be developing a national wellbeing measure, pressing ahead even when questions were asked regarding the wisdom of splashing out on something so whimsical when there’s an economy to rebuild.

Of course, intrinsic to that line of questioning is the idea that happiness is a bit of a luxury when you’re broke. President Sarkozy’s response was to say that too many governments ‘make a fetish out of GDP’ and to launch the report of the Stiglitz Commission. This suggested that a multidimensional measure of wellbeing would include health, education, environmental factors and political voice, in addition to material standards of living. But this and similar measures, including the ONS’s – have two potential flaws.

The first is that they tend to decide what components make for improved wellbeing – rather than asking the public what they think is important. The second is that in pursuing the wider concept of wellbeing in a single measure, they might nod to material comfort, but often lose sight of the most pressing issue of our time – how to increase economic growth.

Demos and PwC have been working for over a year to fill this gap, by trying to marry wellbeing with growth. We have come up with a unique hybrid – a measure of economic growth which the public themselves believe will also improve their wellbeing. 'Good growth', if you will. We allowed the public to set the priorities for 'good growth' themselves – and the results certainly have implications not just for the government’s ‘whimsical’ measure of happiness – but for the more serious business of getting the economy back on its feet.

We found that yes, of course, the public is interested in more than just GDP. But that doesn’t mean they don’t see income and jobs as the two critical elements of good growth. They aren’t interested in growth in GDP where it isn’t creating jobs. The third most important factor the public identified for good growth is health. Rather than being a abstract benefit, health is very clearly seen by the public as an economic policy issue - poor health means reduced chances of holding down a job, which means less financial security.

But this doesn’t mean we’re all obsessed with work. When we forced people to choose, we found that work-life balance shot up people’s priorities for good growth - the' were prepared to reduce their weekly pay by around £20 to work one fewer hour per week. They were also willing to pay £23 per week to reduce the national unemployment rate by around 1 per cent.

These findings take the ONS wellbeing measure one step further. Yes it might be able to measure how miserable we all are - but will it tell us how to make us happy? More importantly, will it tell us how to do this and improve our paltry 1.5% growth rate?

The Demos/PwC research might have the answer. Imagine if every policy and public service were aligned to create 'good growth'. NHS services would be tasked not just with making people well – but well enough to work. Employers would be encouraged – expected – to provide preventative health schemes. GPs would know they had to ask about a person’s occupation, look for signs of in-work stress and nip it in the bud. Hospitals would have to prioritise getting people back to work with occupational therapy, in the same way they currently focus on older people being able to live independently at home.

Welfare to work for incapacity benefit claimants would be greatly expanded. Flexible working would become the norm. Investment in infrastructure would prioritise transport and well-located housing, so that people aren’t eating up their free time by commuting. And job creation would be the single biggest priority for government. The result? We would all emerge from the recession happier and healthier. Surely a goal worth pursuing?

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