Is Gross National Happiness Next?

By Jason Marsh | May 2, 2011 | 6 comments

New momentum for governments' efforts to track the happiness of their citizens.

Census questions are pretty basic and familiar. Income. Marital status. Number of kids. Happiness level.

Happiness level?

onebluelight

It’s by no means the norm, but broad public surveys are focusing more and more on people’s psychological well-being, not just their material circumstances. John Tierney reported yesterday in The New York Times on one of the latest signs of this trend: the city census form distributed by officials in Somerville, Massachusetts, this spring.

On top of the usual questions, Somerville’s census also asked residents questions like, on a scale of 1 to 10, “How happy do you feel right now?” and “In general, how similar are you to other people you know?” and “Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live?”

Somerville has created such questions at a time when many scientists, activists, and some policy makers have been arguing that societies need more than the Gross National Product to gauge their overall level of well-being. Some scholars, such as former Harvard president Derek Bok, in his recent book The Politics of Happiness, have made the case that findings from positive psychology should inform social policies, helping the public benefit from what scientists have learned about the roots of a happy, meaningful life.

The idea still has a long way to go. As Tierney writes,

Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire.

Still, change definitely does seem to be afoot. Well beyond the city limits of Somerville, which is just outside of Boston, the UK government has devised a national survey to measure its citizens’ happiness levels—a move that echoes the small country of Bhutan‘s efforts to track the Gross National Happiness of its citizens. France has initiated a similar project, Tierney reports.

In Somerville’s case, it’s not yet entirely clear how the city will use the happiness data it collects.

Somerville officials hope to create a well-being index that they can track over time and perhaps eventually compare with results in neighboring towns (assuming the other towns follow their example). But they acknowledge that figuring out how their policies affect that index will be a challenge.

“We want to see what the baseline data tell us and then expand,” said Tara Acker, director of SomerStat, the city’s program to analyze data. “Is there a correlation between happiness and open space or green space? If we see low levels of satisfaction correlated to low levels of income, perhaps we want more programs aimed at low-income people.”

But for the time being, simply collecting the data is the vital first step.

“The data may show nothing of interest or they may hold big surprises—you just can’t tell until you collect them,” Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and happiness expert, told Tierney. “But given that it costs nothing to add some questions about happiness to a census that is already going out, why wouldn’t you?”

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Yay, Somerville! I love Massachusetts and our willingness to try out new ideas. I just read that for the first time the amount of protected land exceeds developed land in our state. That’s quite something if you think of how small and overpopulated we are. Of course more people are getting shuffled into cities, which in a Land Trust course I took, drew criticism from the students.

People here have low obesity rates and love exercising, but the noise and crowdedness causes tension as well. The most interesting thing I read about happiness is that people can adjust to all sorts of challenges, with a few exceptions - noise being one of them. I have seen the noise in our cities drive people up the wall - including me.

How to measure something as vague as happiness will be a challenge. I hope that other, more descriptive words get used to measure happiness. Our community in western Mass mixes many races, young and old, rich and poor. But the community spirit and food growers brings people together, which is supposed to be among the important stuff, right?  smile

Emmy | 10:12 am, May 10, 2011 | Link

 

A very well constructed and written artiicle, thank you for posting this!
My own interest in these issues lies at the intersection between work (or overwork), health and happiness.
The number of people working shorter hours—especially in rich countries—are key to happiness, health and long-term sustainability.
The result is that we’re working longer hours and earning less money. Oh, the cause of longer hours with less pay, Americans are told, is driven by our need to compete in an ever-growing, global economy. But the global economy has not forced businesses in those northern European countries to increase hours. I can tell you from my own experience traveling in Europe that Europeans won’t hear of longer working hours. They’re constantly looking for ways to increase the already abundant vacation time that they get. America will eventually learn from our European peers. I just hope we learn before it’s too late.
So I say thanks to you and add your blog to my favorites just now..

Philanthropist | 2:05 am, June 25, 2011 | Link

 

i totaly agree with Emmy

Crazy Vision | 9:20 pm, September 22, 2011 | Link

 

Jason Marsh , ..
that’s amazing post .. thanx

اصالة | 6:43 am, September 23, 2011 | Link

 

Yay, Somerville! I love Massachusetts and our willingness to try out new ideas. I just read that for the first time the amount of protected land exceeds developed land in our state. That’s quite something if you think of how small and overpopulated we are. Of course more people are getting shuffled into cities, which in a Land Trust course I took, drew criticism from the students.

People here have low obesity rates and love exercising, but the noise and crowdedness causes tension as well. The most interesting thing I read about happiness is that people can adjust to all sorts of challenges, with a few exceptions - noise being one of them. I have seen the noise in our cities drive people up the wall - including me.

How to measure something as vague as happiness will be a challenge. I hope that other, more descriptive words get used to measure happiness. Our community in western Mass mixes many races, young and old, rich and poor. But the community spirit and food growers brings people together, which is supposed to be among the important stuff, right?  smile

Ana iller | 4:21 am, March 8, 2012 | Link

 

A very well constructed and written artiicle, thank you for posting this!
My own interest in these issues lies at the intersection between work (or overwork), health and happiness.
The number of people working shorter hours—especially in rich countries—are key to happiness, health and long-term sustainability.
The result is that we’re working longer hours and earning less money. Oh, the cause of longer hours with less pay, Americans are told, is driven by our need to compete in an ever-growing, global economy. But the global economy has not forced businesses in those northern European countries to increase hours. I can tell you from my own experience traveling in Europe that Europeans won’t hear of longer working hours. They’re constantly looking for ways to increase the already abundant vacation time that they get. America will eventually learn from our European peers. I just hope we learn before it’s too late.
So I say thanks to you and add your blog to my favorites just now..

chicas cam | 6:05 am, March 16, 2012 | Link

 
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