ONS releases first results of happiness survey

The early findings of the Office for National Statistics’ much-discussed survey of national well-being have confirmed what anybody who is familiar with the field of ‘happiness economics‘ already knows. The UK’s life satisfaction score is 7.4 (out of 10), very much in line with previous studies, while the differences between Northern Ireland (7.6), Scotland (7.5) and England and Wales (7.4) are too small to be meaningful. When asked ‘To what extent do you feel the things you do in life are worthwhile?’ and ‘Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?’, results remained much the same (7.6 and 7.3 respectively).

Further unsurprisingly results show that people who are married, in a relationship or in a civil partnership tend to be happier than people who are lonely, single, divorced or widowed. Students are happier than the chronically ill and people with children are more likely to think that what they do is worthwhile, whereas the unemployed are less likely to feel that way. Furthermore, ‘The longer the duration of a person’s unemployment the lower their scores are for the “life satisfaction”, “worthwhile” and “happy yesterday” questions.’

It 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. The BBC’s Mark Easton has taken a glass half-full approach, saying: ‘If David Cameron is serious about using official well-being data to decide government policy, today he got some pointers as to where his priorities might lie.’ What priorities might these be? Incentivising marriage, banning contraception, reducing unemployment and encouraging migration from London to Belfast? As I argued at the IEA happiness debate in January, a strict adherence to well-being surveys leads us to policies which the government won’t do, can’t do, or is already doing.

Easton picks up on the finding that ethnic minorities are less happy than whites, but this, again, is old news which has been reported in previous well-being studies. Are there policy implications here? Not really, because - as he notes - the reason for this happiness divide is far from clear. It could be to do with ‘income, education or employment patterns within different ethnic groups’, or ‘discrimination or prejudice’, or ‘migration itself’, or it might just be ‘cultural differences in the way people respond to questions from pollsters’. The most likely explanation is income itself - a measure that is absent from the ONS’s survey, presumably because the Prime Minister thinks ‘it’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money’. In a refreshing turn of events, the New Economics Foundation has rightly noted that there is ‘a clear link between happiness and earnings’ and that ‘income data remains the missing piece of the puzzle’. On this, we are in happy agreement. Policies which facilitate job creation and prosperity make for a happy society. It is unlikely that David Cameron had not reached that conclusion independently, but if it takes the ONS to spell it out for the umpteenth time for the message to get through, the well-being project may yet have value.

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