Making a happy society

Jumping on the beach8 July 2011

"That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers," the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson claimed. His recipe for a good society is one that strives to increase happiness in the population.

Three hundred years later Hutcheson’s ideas are starting to find their way into UK policy. In November 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Coalition Government would start measuring progress "not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving".

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) was tasked to find indicators that could measure general wellbeing, covering people’s quality of life, environmental and sustainability issues, as well as economic performance.

The ONS report on the findings of the consultation is expected in July 2011 – coincidentally in the same month as the International Happiness Day on 10 July, an event gathering one million people across the globe to "share a day of celebrating and spreading happiness".

Lord Richard Layard, founder director of the ESRC Centre for Economic Performance and a leading researcher on happiness and wellbeing, is a co-founder of the Action for Happiness campaign. In the 2010 Science article Measuring Subjective Well-being he points to the limitations of solely focusing on money when looking at how we are living, in terms of economic benefits or how much people would want to pay for a change of state.

"For many key areas of public policy, such measurements make no sense because little individual choice is involved – think, for example, of physical health, mental health, responsible parents, family stability, (un)employment, and community life," Lord Layard argues.

"In these areas, we can get much better measures of the benefits of a policy change through direct measures of subjective wellbeing."

He co-authored a recent ONS report that identifies wellbeing indicators to monitor in order to improve public policy – such as life satisfaction and 'domain satisfaction' relating to particular areas, for instance relationships, health, work, finances and children.

Overall wellbeing can be good a good indicator of general happiness, and are indeed at times defined as 'sustained happiness'. Professor Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick has been examining the factors that determine wellbeing, and how wellbeing affects other areas, such as productivity and income.

Findings from his ESRC-funded research project Wellbeing and Economics revealed links between happiness, income and biomarkers (physical indicators). The research uncovered a correlation between the reported happiness of European countries and blood pressure problems.

The research project Emotion Regulation of Others and Self (EROS) studies how people regulate emotions, and the benefits and costs to our wellbeing. Professor Peter Totterdell leads an EROS project on the Personal Consequences of Emotion Regulation, and argues that our happiness partly depends on the happiness of people we are connected with through our social networks ('Our emotional neighbourhoods' - The Psychologist June 2010).

"The social network structure makes it is likely you will be more happy if your neighbourhood contains happy people," the researchers conclude – but adds that the network will influence, but not fully determine what people feel.