Is happiness worth measuring?

Is happiness worth measuring? Photo: Jetta Productions

Like time and money, everyone seems to want more happiness. No wonder then, that governments in the UK, Canada and France, and possibly the US, are devoting resources to measuring their citizens' happiness.

But is measuring happiness a good idea? For some, it has the whiff of a desperate publicity stunt by a desperate government, hoping to distract the public from poor performance.

But one country has been closely watching the happiness of its people for the past four decades: Bhutan, home to about 700,000 people in the Himalayas. In 1972, Bhutan's then king Jigme Singye Wangchuck instituted a development policy that took account of people's happiness.

Since then, development decisions have been based not just on how much they add to the country's bottom line, but also how they affect its culture, environment, levels of equality and ability to deliver good governance.

And it seems to be working. The Asian Development Bank's 2012 Bhutan Living Standards survey found that 85 per cent of households report being happy.

Because of its commitment to happiness, Bhutan has occupied a special place in the hearts of happiness researchers who point to Bhutan-style "Gross National Happiness" as an example to the rest of us.

Part of the reason for this is that our standard approach to measuring wellbeing is to ask how rich people are. The more money you have, the logic goes, the happier you are.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, money isn't always a good guide to measuring wellbeing. On the contrary, it can throw up perverse results that would give only a sociopath cause to smile.

Take, for example, the BP spill from the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which devastated marine environments. It turns out that this was great for the US economy and should therefore have increased happiness.

According to The Wall Street Journal, JP Morgan Chase's US chief analyst Michael Feroli estimated that if the expected increases in economic activity spent on employing people to undertake the cleanup was realised, "this would likely mean a near-to-medium-term boost to activity that might offset the drags".

Beyond economics, some argue that making happiness a core part of policy decision is an antidote to cynical, poll-driven strategies that pervade contemporary politics.

London School of Economics professor Richard Layard and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, for example, argues that happiness is the idea goal for governments because it is not easily corrupted to serve nefarious ends.

Layard's reasoning is that unlike other goods, which are means to other ends, happiness is its own end. Asked to explain why we want to be happy, we can't give a reason for valuing it — or at least we don't feel the need to provide some higher reason for valuing it. Happiness is desirable because, well, it just is.

As such, happiness is not easily corrupted for other, more sinister goals – like, say, invading an oil-rich country in the Middle East.

There's just one problem with this line of reasoning: the more you know about happiness — and measure it via happiness indexes and the like — the more likely it is that it will be turned into just one more means to an end.

If, in the past, we didn't feel the need to give a reason as to why we want to be happy, the so-called "science of happiness" now furnishes us with any number of ulterior motives for pursuing happiness.

For example, research shows that happier people — with what researchers call a "positive emotional style" — have better resistance to the common cold. Other studies show that happiness is related to lower stress levels and decreased levels of a blood protein called fibrinogen that is linked to clotting. High levels of fibrinogen can be an indicator of future heart problems.

Given what researchers are discovering about the health benefits of being happy, it's not too fanciful to think that in the near future, health ministers and public health bodies will devise programs to cheer people up in an effort to reduce the risks of heart attacks, improve our overall health and so ease the burden on the public purse for healthcare.

While taking account of people's happiness in policy decisions is surely a welcome move, crunching emotions down into a number on an index that can be reported in official statistics almost ensures that happiness will become as shallow as any other official measure of progress. People's happiness would become just another political football to be used and abused.

In all likelihood, the resulting measure of happiness you're left with is going to be as blunt a measure as using money as an indicator of wellbeing.