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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

General Well Being

There is a growing interest in looking at alternatives to Gross Domestic Product as the sole measurement of a country's performance. The term "gross national happiness" was coined in 1972 in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan by the former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously, as the Centre for Bhutan Studies with some assistance from Canadadeveloped a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population's general level of well-being.

Even the Prime Minister supports the concept. In 2006, just five months into his time as Conservative Party leader, he described the task of gauging people's wellbeing as one of the "central political issues of our time". In government, the Office of National Statistics has been asked to produce measures to implement his "long-stated ambition of gauging general wellbeing." There is apparently some 'nervousness' in Downing Street on this issue. Not surprisingly as reflected in the Daily Record comment; "It sounds crazy - especially coming from a Tory Government whose economic policies spell misery for millions of people." Indeed! But the ONS started to collect the data last April.


In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced that he intended to include happiness and wellbeing in France's measurement of economic progress. He was accepting recommendations made by two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who called on world leaders to move away from a purely economic concept of gross domestic product, which measures economic production, to wellbeing and sustainability.

Canada already does some polling on wellbeing and John Helliwell from their statistics office has been to the UK to advise when he commented;  "Canadian statisticians and researchers also poll subjective wellbeing across the country, but the data have thus far not attracted much policy attention. What is or could be dramatically different in the UK is for the government not just to undertake more widespread and thorough collection of subjective wellbeing data, but also to give them a central place in the choice and evaluation of public policies. That would be a global first."

Stiglitz is of course an economic advisor to the Scottish Government. I also understand that the Scottish Parliament, Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee may be asked to look at this issue. Patrick Harvie MSP is on record as a keen supporter of this approach. 

Still not convinced? Well none other than the OECD is championing the cause and has a major piece of work underway called the Better Life Initiative. The OECD is probably better known for its rather dry treatment of economic data so their eleven dimensions; housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance is very interesting. Britain comes out fairly middling on the current assessment with 68% of Britons satisfied with their life against an OECD average of 59%. However, since the 1970's, evidence suggests that we are no happier despite increasing material wealth and improving health. 

The summer edition of The Geographer, newsletter of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society has a number of articles on this issue and good overview from their Chief Executive,Mike Robinson. He highlights the Spirit Level analysis and the work of Eric Weiner in his book Geography of Bliss. Weiner compared the happiest and most miserable countries and concluded that "Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude."

If you want to take some practical actions then support  Action for Happiness. This is a movement of people committed to building a happier society. They want to see a fundamentally different way of life where people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others. They emphasise this has positive outcomes for everyone. It's not just a 'good' thing to do.

The final word from my fellow Liverpudlian John Lennon, quoted by Mike Robinson in his article:
"When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life."

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