TOPIC GUIDE: Happiness

"Happiness is the business of government"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2011

AUTHOR: Abigail Ross-Jackson

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John Stuart Mill famously said: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so’, but from April 2011 the Office for National Statistics will start to ask people to do just that - report their happiness. The decision relates to increasing debate about whether governments should concern themselves with our happiness and criticism of too narrow a focus on measures of economic output, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as a measure of the government’s success. In 2005, Lord Layard argued that ‘Happiness should become the goal of policy, and the progress of national happiness should be measured.’ [Ref: Scotsman]. Layard and others cite the ‘Easterlin Paradox’ – the argument, advanced by Richard Easterlin in the 1970s, that while we may have got richer year by year, we haven’t got any happier – in support of their stance that governments need to develop policy goals more orientated towards the achievement of happiness. Whilst some have challenged Easterlin’s original findings [Ref: Center for Global Development], the focus on happiness has gained momentum in recent years [Ref: Telegraph]. French President Nicolas Sarkozy endorsed the importance of happiness and wellbeing to governments in 2009 [Ref: Telegraph], and most recently Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that the coalition government will be addressing happiness and wellbeing as part of its economic policy [Ref: Guardian]. While few would deny the desirability of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily follow that its promotion should be the concern of government. This raises two related questions: First, can the government promote happiness? Indeed, can happiness even be measured? And, second, should the government set itself this goal, or should individuals be responsible for their own happiness?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What’s the relationship between prosperity and happiness?
Few would disagree with the old adage that ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ though most would regard achieving a degree of material wealth as an important human aspiration. However, Richard Layard, one of the leading advocates of the need to re-focus the priorities of government around happiness, argues that once a certain level of wealth is achieved – around £10,000 per person – happiness becomes ‘inversely related to income’ [Ref: Guardian]. For Layard progress cannot be measured by growth in GDP, but instead by measuring the ‘overall scale of human happiness and misery’. He therefore welcomed Sarkozy’s ‘Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ which reported in September 2009 [Ref: Guardian]. This commission, chaired by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and supported by fellow Laureate Amartya Sen, argued that ‘those attempting to guide the economy and our societies are like pilots trying to steer a course without a reliable compass’ and advocated a ‘dashboard’ of metrics covering health, education, environment, employment, material well-being, interpersonal connectedness, political engagement and equity [Ref: New York Times]. Others dispute the finding that, beyond a certain amount, wealth does not make us happier [Ref: Economist] and argue that the move to measure happiness is, in reality, an attack on the importance of economic growth [Ref: Telegraph]. Indur Goklany has argued that unprecedented economic growth over the past century has played a decisive role in increasing life expectancy, improving education and enhancing economic and social freedoms [Ref: Reason]; thereby providing us with the means to enrich our lives and pursue the goals we wish to.

Happiness: can it be measured and is it the concern of government anyway?
Philosophers down the ages have debated what exactly constitutes ‘the good life’, and the pursuit of happiness is seen by many as being a noble aim. What this means in practice is rather more difficult to pin down. Though the UK’s Office for National Statistics has launched a national debate on what would constitute credible measures of well-being, and intends to include questions to solicit information about people’s views of their own well-being in household surveys [Ref: Office for National Statistics], some claim that attempting to measure happiness is at best a waste of time and at worst absurd. Indeed, such critics associate this approach to happiness as sharing a fundamental misunderstanding with the growing ‘happiness industry’ and literature on the ‘science of happiness’. This misunderstanding treats happiness as more akin to a transient state of enjoyment, which is measurable by surveys and brain scans, rather than having a broader conceptualisation which involves the ‘orientation of your life towards meaning, purpose and value’  [Ref: THES]. From this perspective, happiness is a by-product of having meaningful goals and attachments in one’s life, and is shaped by purposefully navigating the challenges that confront you. Others disagree, arguing that neuroscientists say happiness is tangible and the result of brain activity; so you can see and measure it [Ref: BBC News]. In which case, wouldn’t it be useful for governments to measure how happy people are?

Shaping better policy or colonising our minds?
The coalition government has not yet laid out specific proposals on how measuring happiness will influence policy objectives, but Cameron has made clear the importance he attaches to ‘all those things that make life worthwhile”, not just the bottom line [Ref: YouGov]. Previously, the New Labour government’s interest in the happiness agenda influenced policy discussions on such wide ranging issues as school lessons on emotional intelligence; parenting classes; support for volunteering and work-life balance; a ban on commercial advertising to children; and more money to tackle mental illness [Ref: BBC News]. Supporters of the previous government have expressed cynicism about whether David Cameron has a genuine interest in focusing on people’s happiness and have argued that, if he does, he needs to demonstrate it by paying far greater attention to such issues as growing economic inequalities which generate misery [Ref: Guardian]. Others question what focussing on happiness as a basis for policy-making reveals about government, pointing out that happiness policy has in the past been endorsed by a number of dictators and failing regimes; from Stalin to Kim Il Sung, and fictionally portrayed in dystopian terms in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. One critic of the happiness agenda argues that it is ‘motivated by a powerful mood of atomisation and disenchantment with public life’ where ‘the individual self has become the central focus of social, moral and cultural life’ [Ref: spiked]. From this perspective many politicians, who increasingly struggle to give meaning to public life, become attracted to the more Orwellian task of managing our internal lives. As another critic puts it: ‘deciding what people want can rapidly develop into deciding what they should want’ [Ref: Daily Mail].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

How can we measure happiness?

Philip Johnston Telegraph 16 November 2010

This house believes that GDP growth is a poor measure of improving living standards

Head to head: Andrew Oswald and Steve Landefeld Economist April 2010


An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style

Polly Toynbee Guardian 16 November 2010

Happiness is ... becoming a bit more scientific

Barbara Gunnell Guardian 15 November 2010

This is the greatest good

Richard Layard Guardian 13 September 2009


Happiness is (about to be) overrated

Rob Killick UK After the Recession 11 January 2011

Happy-clappy Cameron in perfect tune with Stalin

Brendan O’Neill First Post 26 November 2010

Measuring our happiness is anti-growth

Andrew Haldenby Telegraph 15 November 2010

Are you going to make a dream come true?

Richard Schoch Times Higher Educational Supplement 31 March 2006


The Official Pursuit of Happiness

Derek Bok Project Syndicate 4 January 2011

Happiness: A measure of cheer

Tim Harford Financial Times 27 December 2010

State of joy: Why your country needs you to be happy

Julian Baggini Independent 6 January 2010

Will this man make you happy?

Stuart Jeffries Guardian 24 June 2008

Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad

Frank Furedi spiked 23 May 2006


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Global Prosperity Wonkcast

Center for Global Development January 2011

The role of local government in promoting wellbeing

Commissioned by Local Government Improvement and Development and the National Mental Health Development Unit New Economics Foundation November 2010

The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P.

Jon Gertner New York Times 13 May 2010

The State of Happiness

The Young Foundation January 2010

The happiness formula

BBC News 4 July 2008

Myles Burnyeat on Aristotle on Happiness

Philosophy Bites 18 November 2007

Now for the Good News

Indur M. Goklany Reason 23 March 2007

The battle for affluence

Battle of Ideas 28 October 2006


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Global Prosperity Wonkcast

Center for Global Development January 2011

The happiness formula

BBC News 4 July 2008

Myles Burnyeat on Aristotle on Happiness

Philosophy Bites 18 November 2007

The battle for affluence

Battle of Ideas 28 October 2006

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