MARCH 26, 2011
Governments, academics and pollsters are hot on the trail of happiness.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an initiative to measure the national mood in a way that isn't captured by traditional economic statistics. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German legislators are looking into similar programs. U.S. government researchers and Gallup pollsters are asking hundreds of thousands of Americans each year how satisfied they are with their lives.
But statisticians' efforts to measure happiness are ridden with uncertainty. Around the world, people tend to describe themselves as happy even when they express many specific complaints and doubts about their lives or their government. Some economists say that even if a reliable happiness test could be devised, it would be risky to craft policy based on a broad metric. Instead, they say, happiness is more reliably reflected in things that are objectively measured, such as income, health and living conditions.
Under Mr. Cameron's direction, the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics is looking at how to assess well being by soliciting feedback on Facebook and Twitter and in more than 100 public meetings around the country.
The U.K. researchers are hoping to produce a measure that would be comparable with other countries. But researchers aren't sure whether national differences reflect true variations in happiness or merely point to linguistic and cultural differences. They note, for example, that Latin American countries routinely score higher than would be expected based on variables such as income, while Asian countries score lower.
Some happiness-survey skeptics point out another potential problem: People are, by and large, fairly happy, or at least say they are when surveyed.
Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics, is an advocate of trying to track happiness as "a basic measure of the progress of a society." Its subjectivity isn't a problem, in his view: "The most important things in life are subjective."