Why is government measuring happiness?

Prof Philip Booth writes for PublicServiceEurope

The British government is spending £2m on trying to work out what makes us happy. After doing that, the Office for National Statistics will collect data on our wellbeing on a long-term basis. It is doing this so that it can, in Prime Minister David Cameron's words, promote the general wellbeing of the country instead of obsessively promoting economic growth. This policy is misguided for several reasons. Firstly, it is clear that governments do not try to maximise economic growth. The size of the state in economic life is well above the level that maximises economic growth in the UK and most other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. 

Indeed, if the share of government spending in national income had been maintained at the level that pertained in 1960 for the last 50 years - then national income today would be twice as high as it currently is. Growth retarding regulation abounds – planning restrictions, employment law and so on. People will have different views on whether bigger government is a good idea, but it is very clear that government policy in almost every area is not geared towards maximising economic growth. So, Cameron's policy is based on a false premise.

It is also deeply troubling that a British government should believe that the best way to promote national well-being is to try to collect aggregate statistics on our well-being. What makes us happier is deeply personal and involves trade-offs. One person in a particular family situation migh