The Happiness report – Food for thought
There has been a lot in the press about the World Happiness Report that was published today by Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative under the United Nations. This aims at measuring how happy the population of each of 158 countries are. The UK comes in at 21, squeezed between the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
However, while the ranking of world happiness may be interesting, that is only a very small part of the report. The really interesting parts were not really covered at all in the media which is a pity, because the report is well worth looking through.
I was particularly struck by chapter 4 which talks about what countries can do to actually improve happiness and well-being. Basically this is a criticism of how Governments (and the UK Government comes in for particular scrutiny) make policy. Decision-making it is based on economic benefit, not the benefit to the people. The chapter is rather surprising given that it is co-written by Gus McDonnell who is the former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, but it makes some really useful recommendations.
At the moment every piece of new regulation needs to go through a complex process including an “impact assessment” which looks at the costs and benefits. These are mainly the economic ones, and, as a result, a lot of health and safety regulation is not seen as being beneficial for the economy, despite the fact that it may reduce death, illness or injury. Benefit to business always trumps the benefit to workers. We saw this in the recent evaluation by the EU of health and safety directives, where the emphasis was on the economic benefits. This applies to all new laws and policies, whether on housing, transport, schools or health. The current Treasury rules even say that policies should be judged by how much people would be willing to pay.
The World Happiness Report recommends that this should change and instead policies should be analysed based on happiness as a measurement of benefit. While this is very a very simple summery of what the paper actually says, and any such policy would have to ensure that it took into account the needs of disadvantaged groups rather than just society as a whole, the idea of cost benefit analysis being based both on the benefit to people, rather than the economy, and where the focus was on the actual improvement in people’s “well-being” that will come about instead of the material benefit to individuals, would be a brave and radical one. It would put people’s well-being and happiness at the top of the Government’s priorities.
The report quotes Thomas Jefferson:
“The care of human life and happiness…is the only legitimate object of good government.”
Wouldn’t it be great to hear that from one or two of our senior politicians nowadays?