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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 25/11/2010

In the autumn of 2004, before the Centre was fully operational, Professor Ed Diener – a world expert on happiness – was in Scotland. He agreed to speak at a dinner I managed to organise, with the support of Bob Downes at BT, on creating national indicators of well-being.  A range of journalists,  policymakers and business people participated in what turned out to be an interesting discussion. Of course, not everyone there was that keen on the idea. Indeed a few years later in Washington, Ed Diener (unaware I think that I was in the audience) mentioned the discussion he had in Scotland and said it was hardly surprising that the Scots weren't that keen on having more happiness! 

In 2004 it was apparent to me that, like it or not, well-being was the big idea that would come to dominate at least in the west. This is why when we set up the Centre in the wake of the publication of my book The Scots' Crisis of Confidence we didn't just make our focus confidence but also well-being.

Spin forward six years and now we have David Cameron, as Prime Minister of the UK, announcing that there is going to be a national index of well-being to help measure social progress – not as a complete replacement of GDP but as an addition. The Centre thinks this a welcome development.

Cameron has been floating this type of idea for a while. In 2005 he talked about the need for a 'happiness index'. Not being in power he wasn't able to advance the agenda. Prime Minister Blair apparently looked at the idea and decided it was potentially too difficult to pin down.

The baton was then taken up by the French President Nicholas Sarkozy who appointed a commission to look at alternative ways of measuring social progress. The Commission included two Nobel prize winning economists – Joseph Stiglitz who Chaired the group and Armatya Sen from India.

The Commission recommended that the focus on progress be widened from economic production to well-being and sustainability. Material living standards in a society are inaccurately recorded by GDP and so they recommended looking at  household income and consumption and the distribution of income and wealth within the society. They also wanted to see an emphasis placed on access to education and health and outcomes, for example. Physical indicators too (such as fishing stocks, or water purity) should also be included.

They also recommended the use of both 'objective and subjective'  well-being measures arguing that research shows that subjective measures can be robust. They also write:

Subjective well-being encompasses different aspects (cognitive evaluations of one's life, happiness, satisfaction, positive emotions such as joy and pride, and negative emotions such as pain and worry): each of them should be measured separately to  derive a more comprehensive appreciation of people's lives.

Finally, the emphasis within the Stiglitz Commission's report is still on measuring 'social progress' rather than something more individualistic – the focus here is still on society.

As yet we don't know what David Cameron's well-being indicators will include. It appears to be a mix of objective and subjective factors and I doubt that it will have the comprehensive – or political – focus of what is proposed by the Stiglitz Commission. Nonetheless it is still a welcome development as it is essential that there is some policy focus for government which is broader than GDP.

However, I am somewhat confused about the role in happiness in all this. When Cameron originally said he was keen on this type of idea in 2005 he used the term 'happiness index' and this is what is being used widely in the press but the thrust of the statement is on 'well-being' not simply on happiness.

For reasons I'll set out in the next blog there is an important difference between the two in terms of its potential cultural impact.  From the Centre's perspective well-being is the much better focus – and (Ed Diener please note) not just because we're dour Scots.

Part 2 continues here.

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