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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 28/11/2010

I feel compelled to recommence writing about the new well-being indicators by saying just how tiresome, predictable and dispiriting much of the media's response was to the Prime Minister's announcement.  The Newsnight piece, for example, featured Ken Dodd singing 'Happiness' as well as a rant from the  American political satirist P. J. O'Rourke who is well known for his libertarian and anti-government stance. In lots of media outlets, the relevance and seriousness of the topic was lost.

Let's remember what the issue is about. The current way governments right round the world assess their social progress is via GDP – a measure of economic output. This takes no account of where the ensuing wealth goes (into the hands of a tiny minority, perhaps)  or the negative impact such growth could have on quality of life.  Surely any serious person can see that governments need to augment GDP with other measures. This indeed was the conclusion of the Stiglitz Commission set up by the French President and which included two Nobel prize winning economists.

If the UK  Government was only proposing to collect data on subjective measures of how happy people feel then we would certainly think this was inadequate. For a start, happiness is notoriously difficult to define. Indeed there are two major approaches to happiness – one is hedonic, viewing happiness as essentially about pleasurable feelings; the other eudemonic seeing happiness as more about living a meaningful life. Ask a person in the street how they would define happiness and they are likely to say that it is about pleasurable feelings or being in a good mood. Indeed this is why many folk roll their eyes at the prospect of the Government starting to measure such feelings as they think that happiness, so defined, is about the individual and is not the Government's business.

A second problem the Centre would have with a large emphasis on happiness in the new index is that we perceive there to be an existing problem with current concerns about children's happiness. Parents these days now believe that it is a terrible thing if their child has a bad day or a bad experience and they will contact teachers and schools to complain about a whole range of incidents. For example, one Director of Education told me recently she was being pursued by a parent who thought that as Director she should do something about the fact his daughter hadn't been invited to a classmate's birthday party.  There are a number of reasons why we have had this lurch towards overprotection of youngsters, such as parental guilt, but the current fashionable emphasis on psychology (self-esteem and happiness) is part of the problem, no doubt.

Well-being is slightly different as it suggests a broader focus. I'm sure people will understand that a walk in the rain, for example, may not make me happy (indeed I could be miserable) but is good for my well-being. The same could be said about crying in the face of a personal crisis or challenge. Unlike happiness which suggests a psychological state, well-being has both a physical and emotional/mental/psychological component. It is quite simply the fuller, rounder term.   

As yet we do not know what the proposed well-being index will include but by all accounts it will include subjective (how people feel) and objective factors. As far as I can see the plan is not just to measure feelings such as happiness but to look at a wide range of measures which affect our quality of life. This could include, for example, access to decision-making, air quality, work life balance  and average commuting times.  Surely this is the stuff of politics and a far cry from Ken Dodd?

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