Thursday, 24 March 2011

The politics of happiness

As a PhD student seeking to understand subjective wellbeing[1], I am, of course, pleased that British politicians are beginning to take happiness seriously, but I can’t help be a little worried.

We increasingly agree that measuring happiness is a subjective exercise.

We seek more money, education, health, democracy, not as ends in themselves but as means to make people’s experiences of life more positive. Seeking to understand what actually makes people’s experiences of life more positive is therefore a vital aim of social policy.

In the light of this, and within the limits of such a short blog, my concerns with the current initiative in the UK are threefold:

Asking people how happy they are is not enough

The proposal to measure people’s perceptions of their own wellbeing recommends a series of detailed questions, based on 0-10 scales, to be integrated into national ONS surveys (Dolan et al. (2011). Some of these questions are broad, like” overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”, and some specific, either to a specific concept like, “overall, to what extent do you think that the things that you do in your life are worthwhile?” or to a specific domain for example “how satisfied are you with your financial situation?” However I have a number of concerns about this approach.

Firstly do we know what we are measuring with broad questions? Asking questions using words like happy or satisfied without understanding what people think about when they make these assessments, make it impossible to know what could be done to increase subjective wellbeing.

Are we asking the right questions? How do we know that “worthwhileness” is more important to people in Britain than “meaning” or “control” or “connectedness” - other psychological needs that Dolan et al (ibid) identify?

ONS is currently asking a set of open questions about the meaning of wellbeing on its website and at a variety of events around the country . I would like to think that they will discover what wellbeing means for the Great British public and use this understanding to inform the further questions that they ask. However, the cynic in me suspects that these questions have already been decided as stated in the report above, and the realist suggests that relying on pro-active web responses and attendance at events is not likely to elicit responses truly representative of British society.

Money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, unless you don’t have any

There is extensive evidence to suggest that, after basic needs are met, money (either personal wealth or GDP) is not always one of the key determinants of happiness (Lane 2000; NEF 2009).

However, the phrase “after basic needs are met” is important in this sentence.

We may disagree about what basic needs are, but being able to satisfy these basic needs is likely to improve your subjective wellbeing. This is possibly why many people feel angry when they see the Westminster Government promoting a happiness agenda with one hand and with the other cutting budgets that deprive people of the resources that they need to meet their basic needs.

Happiness is about more than the individual.

Rarely does happiness exist in isolation. Just as my happiness is related to other aspects of my life, it is also related to other people in my life – other people make me happy and my happiness if affected by the happiness of those around me, particularly people that I care about. Similarly, comparison with other people is known to have an impact upon subjective wellbeing.

The ONS recognises this by looking at individual happiness and national happiness. However, in order to genuinely understand subjective wellbeing we need to take this relational aspect of happiness seriously at other levels such as family, friendship groups and community. We need to know how people think about themselves in relation to the other people in their lives and what impact this has on their wellbeing and the complex ways that these issues interplay with other, sometimes competing, important aspects of our lives.

My PhD seeks to answer some of these questions relating to the meaning of subjective wellbeing, but in a very different culture. Next week I head off to Laos, a country characterised by (among many other things) ethnic diversity, Buddhism and communism, where I’ll being doing ethnographic research for the next 15 months.

I’ll be blogging on my quest to understand happiness in Laos. I would be very happy if you would like to follow my adventures.

Christina McMellon

[1] In this piece I use the terms ‘subjective wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’ interchangeably. This could be, and has been, endlessly debated, the terminology related to fields such as positive psychology, happiness studies and philosophy have been repeatedly problematised and discussed, but there is not enough space to get into that debate in the posts.


  1. Thank you, this was really good! Look forward to following your Laos adventures! H.

  2. Having been involved in a bid led by Ann Phoenix at the Institute of Education in response to an ESRC call on Subjective Wellbeing and Public Policy (about 18 months ago), I think your phd topic sounds really interesting and exciting. I have particular interests around children, young people and bereavement, which of course is generally considered detrimental to subjective wellbeing, although I think the reality may be more complex than this. But I have found it difficult to find any discussions of young people's experiences of death and bereavement in developing countries. I hope you will keep us up to date with your journeys. All best wishes, Jane McCarthy, Open University

  3. Thanks for this, Christina, very interesting points well made. I have many other concerns about this agenda, since those wishing to measure it are not offering people a counterfactual (e.g. if you had no access to healthcare or transport, would you be more or less dissatisfied than you say you are now?),and often what the state is about is making terrible circumstances more tolerable for people, rather than making them happy or satisfied. This absence of a counterfactual I think is so philosophically important, and of course impossible to achieve in emprical measurement since it is a thought experiment. All the best with your very important research, Debbie Price, King's College London.

  4. Christina's blog can be found here: