Happiness by Numbers

The publication this morning of the First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results (a catchy title no doubt tested by the Behavioural Insights Team for its impact on our levels of happiness) is cause for some amusement (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_272294.pdf).  While the results are presented in detail, the one thing not properly addressed in the material, or in any of the discussion of it so far, is ‘so what?’  What on earth is to be done with the ‘knowledge’ that people are happier in one part of the country than in others, or that you were more likely to have felt anxious yesterday if you classified yourself as Arab?  What are the policy options available?

But there is a worrying aspect to this.  Alongside the recent paper on the use of randomised controlled trials in policy making (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/TLA-1906126.pdf), there is the prospect of ‘happiness’ experiments.  Do policy initiatives affect the results next year?  Leave aside all the problems of attributing causation, there must be someone in Whitehall even now adding happiness into the great calculating machines that they run at the Treasury to model monetary and fiscal policy.

I have been reading a number of works recently that take an ethnographic approach to the study of the state and its works.  We can anticipate furious government activity, each department developing its own contribution to improving happiness unrelated to the activities of all other government departments.  These will all have conflicting implications and impacts.  And they will affect very little. Indeed, those coordinating the activities of the state will be us.  We will be left to cope and adapt as the frantic activity continues around us.  As Tess Lea at Sydney has recently suggested, if you want to see anarchy, watch the state and its bureaucracy in action.

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