Happiness is a Warm-Gun

Written by Charles Low

Britons are reportedly happier today than they were in 2011 an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on national Personal Well-Being has shown.

Among the key findings of the report is the observation that since 2011, there have been “small but significant improvements” in personal well-being in each UK country and across all four measures of well-being.

The report has also shown people in Northern Ireland to have the highest well-being of any UK country. This has been the case every year since the official measurement of well-being began. The report has also shown that people of London report levels of well-being below national average.

How does the ONS measure well-being?

The ONS measures well-being based on the responses to the questions below. Survey respondents are asked to answer the questions in a scale where 0 equates to ‘not at all’ and 10 is ‘completely’.

source: ONS

These questions are asked as part of the Annual Population Survey (APS), which is a household survey administered by the ONS. The ONS bases its well-being observations from the answers of approximately 165,000 respondents. These 165,000 respondents are deemed to be nationally representative.  For a fantastic caveat to the alleged representativeness of the APS please look at the picture below:


source: ONS

Why measure well-being?

To paraphrase the Prime Minister David Cameron, GDP is a necessary but not sufficient way of measuring Britain’s progress and, as a consequence, we need another measure. Namely, well-being.

On the 25th of November 2010, Cameron announced his request for the Office of National Statistics to monitor our well-being. Cameron uses the late John F Kennedy’s observation that GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile to justify the use of measuring well-being. Even so, Cameron manages to maintain his commitment to GDP growth by calling Kennedy’s remarks ‘slight overstatement’.

Critics have said that measuring well-being is a woolly idea and something that could be used as a distraction from our poor economic growth. Yet, there is a momentum of movement towards more sustainable development for future progress, and a constituent part of this is leaning on indicators other than just GDP.

Why are we so happy when everything should make us so sad?

George Osborne’s speech at the recent Conservative Party Conference aptly captured the present thinking of the government: more cuts to come. The “Nasty Party” is in the mood for more austerity measures and this signals bad news for the unemployed, bad news for those on disability benefits, bad news for everyone. Doom and gloom. More of it is to come.

And, our wages have not gone up for some time. If you look at the figure below from Danny Blanchflower and Stephen Machin’s recent post on VoxEU, you will notice a decidedly downwards trend in real wage growth in the UK. Put another way, no wage growth (in fact a relative fall most recently) makes us relatively poorer and could well be believed as affecting our well-being, right?

source: Blanchflower and Machin


Despite the economic doom and gloom, it appears we are pretty happy. We are also more happy than we were in 2011 – when the economy was looking slightly more perilous, to be fair. Britons also seem to be reasonably happy when compared to EU peers.

The ONS discusses the possible explanations of our fairly chipper mood surmising that people “may be feeling more positive about their lives as unemployment rates fall”, and that they become more optimistic about the future.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes?

Government policy to monitor levels of well-being has on the very face of it eerie feel of ‘entering the post-human collective’. By that I mean it feels like the government is using our levels of happiness to gauge what policy makes us happy and what makes us sad. A sort-of policy-driven mood-control if you will.

Yet moves to measure progress by indicators other than purely economic ones is a step in the right direction. Even though our state of increased happiness since 2011 may confound some of you, it is at least a phenomenon we can seek to try and understand. However, we still run the risk of the government being able to use our happiness as a means of justifying further austerity measures.

I encourage you to look at the regional picture of our national well-being. Aberdeenshire, my home county seems particularly happy with itself, which leads me to believe well-being has something to do with money. Then again, we’ve always been held as a particular grumpy bunch…