Happiness index: any insights for £2 million?

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Smiling womanThere are two pieces of news emerging from the government's new happiness index that may slot neatly into the category of the blindingly obvious.

The first is that it found that we value things like our family, our health and our homes. The second is that the whole thing was a complete waste of time. So is there nothing we can take from this £2 million study? And if not, why is the government commissioning more work?


The results
The findings are hardly earth-shattering stuff. It turns out that parents put their children first, along with good health and a good home. Teens, on the other hand, value things like their mobile phone, high heels and hugs.

If most of us were forced to come up with a random stab in the dark, we'd get to exactly these findings. It begs the question of why the government had to spend good money inviting 34,000 people to tell them what they felt was most important in life.

Plus, of course, there is the issue that these people were biased. What we value in life depends on two things: what we have and what we don't have. If, for example, we are very short of money and can't put a roof over our family's heads then we value money. If we have enough to get by then we don't. The fact that money didn't feature in the results goes to show that the kind of people who respond to government consultations aren't the ones undergoing a daily battle to put food on the table. It doesn't mean that money is unimportant.

Likewise, ask a teenager what's important, and if they have a cosy and pampered life they will say their mobile phone. Ask a teen who is caring for a relative, or one with no fixed abode and you can bet you'll get a different answer.

It's known as the hierarchy of needs. The more you have, the more likely you are to strive for advanced things. The less you have, the more important the basics become.

Naturally the idea was to ask as many people as possible in order to factor in all this bias. However, this ignores the fact that only certain people respond to these consultations - often those with the technology to make it easy. Likewise it ignores the fact that these things change over time as our circumstances change.

Why bother then?
The question is therefore why the government has told the Office for National Statistics to take the survey to 200,000 people to ask them to rate their happiness in these areas on a scale of zero to ten. If everything goes to plan then we will get the first ratings this time next year. Of course by that time things may have started to get a little better or indeed they may have got a whole lot worse, in which case the things we need in order to feel happy will have evolved again, and the whole exercise will be completely pointless.

It's hard to see on what planet this could be money well spent. There is the small possibility that a happiness index which doesn't factor money into the equation could be a useful new statistic to wave about when GDP is struggling. But surely not. Cameron is interested in our happiness, not his votes.... surely.

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