Whitehall has been looking at happiness and well-being, according to the Sunday Times, citing a new 193 page Defra report Review of research on the influences on personal well-being and application to policy making (PDF) by Paul Dolan and Tessa Peasgood from Imperial College London and Mathew White from the Centre for Well-being in Public Policy, University of Sheffield. John Elliott writes in his piece, Happiness is a chat over the fence, that:
The attempt to quantify what the report calls “SWB” — a personal “sense of wellbeing” — is part of a move by all the main political parties to go beyond purely financial measures of wellbeing in setting goals for policy.
The Whitehall Wellbeing Working Group (W3G for short), a committee of civil servants, has been charged with finding out how ministers can make citizens more cheerful. The report was commissioned by the environment department, which is leading the Whitehall effort. It consists of a review of research carried out around the world into the factors influencing happiness and how governments can affect it.
But what does happiness research mean for policy makers?
“It’s shown that married people are happier — so what does that mean for politics? Does it follow that we should be encouraging people to marry?” asked Dolan, whose next task for the government is to draw up a reliable “happiness unit” to measure wellbeing. He added: “Is that the realm of politics . . . or something that should be left to individual choice?”
While the idea of a Whitehall-defined unit of happiness may not fill that many people with joy, its supporters hope that by pinpointing what makes people happy, taxpayers’ money could be spent with greater effect on national wellbeing.
“If the aim of policy were to alleviate misery, there may be some justification for targeting women as they tend to exhibit higher levels of depression.”
...Although the government has not yet reached many specific conclusions, the health department is working on advice to primary care trusts on promoting wellbeing. The environment department added that the transport and culture ministries were also “interested” in measuring how their policies affected people’s happiness. Meanwhile, the Department of Trade and Industry has just launched a two-year research project into “Mental Capital and Wellbeing”, which, said Defra, “aims to produce a challenging and long-term vision that maximises mental capital in the UK in the 21st century for the benefit of both individuals and society”.
Simon Parker, head of public services research at the think tank Demos, welcomed the new emphasis on wellbeing. He said: “You are starting to see politicians talking about issues that reflect how life isn’t just about cash . . . but it’s important to inject a note of realism, there is only a certain amount a government can do.”
Of course, not everyone is enamoured. Times columnist Libby Purves (In Grey Britain it's always your fault, 9 January) is just back from abroad and thinks it all quite banal:
The latest political buzz is a “wellbeing index”, masterminded by 3WG, the Whitehall Wellbeing Working Group, whose civil servants now have a report in their hands commissioned by the Department for the Environment. It reveals that people are happier if they get plenty of sleep and a social life, are not too fat and get promotion at work; and that they get unhappy if they are jilted, sacked or soaked by heavy rain.
With discoveries as startling as this, it cannot be long before another costly Whitehall survey finds that our wellbeing suffers when we are treated like pointless nuisances by services and authorities that we are paying for.
A tad unfair. The report itself provides a very useful review of the literature and discussion of the various measures of subjectve well-being and their relative merits. For anyone researching this area, it's a must read.