When the ONS released its national happiness survey, critics complained that its results were trivial. But looking at how interest in the debate on happiness research has ebbed since then, I would instead argue that this triviality was the survey’s best aspect.
One of the many problems with Happiness Economics is that the temptation to read a justification for one’s own ideological pet causes into the survey data is just too great. If the ONS survey had produced anything remarkable, somebody would soon have assured us that these results demonstrate ‘the pressing need’ for ‘decisive action’ on what happens to be their own hobby horse. Christopher Snowdon has a point in saying that ‘[i]t is doubtful whether these statements of the bleeding obvious represent terrific value for two million pounds and still more doubtful whether there are any policy implications to be drawn from them.’ But if you think £2m for a project without any policy implications is expensive, just imagine how expensive it would have been with policy implications.
The most well-known narrative that has previously emerged from Happiness Economics is that beyond a certain point, material prosperity is useless. GDP rises over time, but aggregate happiness flatlines or rises only minimally. It is strange, though, that GDP of all variables is being singled out. A flat line means that nothing really raises self-reported happiness for a country as a whole. Apparently, all those medical breakthroughs and improvements that have been made over recent decades have also failed to raise measured happiness. Does this prove that they have all been useless, and that we might as well get rid of them? Crime rates have soared and dropped, yet neither has had a measurable impact on happiness. Does this mean that all the resources spent on containing crime are wasted?
Nobody has drawn any such conclusions from happiness data, of course, because they would not have fit in to any pre-existing narrative. Most of us are inclined to believe that health is a good thing and crime is a bad thing, and if happiness data tell us otherwise, it is more likely that the fault lies with the latter. Anti-growth and anti-consumerist ideologies, in contrast, were already becoming fashionable when Happiness Economics emerged, so its findings seemed to fit in seamlessly.
Turning back to the UK context, it also appears that the failure of the study to really confirm anything was the reason why interest faded. Just look at how quickly Polly Toynbee seemed to dump Happiness Economics after the report failed to produce the results she wanted to see:
‘Visitors may puzzle over the ONS report on national happiness, where 80% of people score seven or more out of 10’. But this doesn’t mean anything because ‘most people, unless suffering intensely, say "Fine, thanks" if asked how they feel by a stranger.’
So happiness surveys are fanciful nonsense? That sounded very different six years ago, when Toynbee asserted confidently:
‘It is now possible to quantify people's levels of happiness pretty accurately by asking them […] Happiness is a real, objective phenomenon, scientifically verifiable. That means people and whole societies can now be measured over time and compared accurately with one another. Causes and cures for unhappiness can be quantified.’
Quite a change of mind - and it must have come about very recently. During the preparation phase of the report, Toynbee still called it ‘an excellent step’. Back then, she was still convinced that ‘most answers to the happiness conundrum point leftwards’, and since the coalition was not currently pursuing a far-left agenda, a happiness index logically had to produce a damning indictment: ‘[T]he ONS measurements will chart the unhappiness path he [Cameron] chose.’
People’s refusal to be miserable appears to have angered Toynbee for quite some time now. Both during the Diamond Jubileeand the Olympics festivities, her message was: stop celebrating! Can’t you see what’s going on? Spending cuts, free schools, welfare reform, bankers’ bonuses, private sector outsourcing, workfare – you’re supposed to feel wretched, how dare you not to?
And now even happiness research has deserted her, so obviously the measurement must be nonsense.
This is, to put it mildly, an unconventional way of reasoning. But if it means that the enthusiasm for happiness engineering has now dampened, who am I to complain?