The Happiness Objective: the ONS Reports on British Well-being

The ONS’s first reporting of the “happiness” statistics – based on “subjective” answers to specific survey questions, rather than so-called “objective” forms of data – came out on Tuesday 24th July. No big surprises and it will only become really interesting, I think, once it beds in and we get year-on-year comparisons going.

You can’t be happy all the time: here, former chart topper Badly Drawn Boy has a bit of a temperature.

I was struck, looking at the data a little more closely, how high the anxiety scores were – and I wonder if this is a sign of the economic times or just how we are in the UK. “Brittle Britain” anyone? Time will tell.

BBC News: ONS releases happiness stats

ONS subjective wellbeing results 24th July 2012

If I can lapse into tabloid speak for a minute, there has been some slamming of the whole exercise by the boo-boys, who see asking people about well-being as either somehow irrelevant or meaningless, because it is “subjective”.

But to quote Richard Layard in his book Happiness, quoting Kenneth Boulding:

Economists are like computers. They need to have facts punched into them.

To dismiss something as meaningless because it is subjective is of course the ultimate non-sequitur when it comes to understanding human beings. Most of the meaningful aspects of our human lives – our feelings, our deepest thoughts and fears – are experienced subjectively and are only partially, if at all, capable of being “objectively measured”. These emotions, feelings and even forms of logic cannot be accessed or evaluated by others without the person themselves as a guide. They are no less meaningful for that. “Objectivity”, in the sense statisticians might use it, is a rather misleading and limiting ideal if we’re trying to evaluate all the evidence.

There’s a time and a place for measuring things; the trick is to know not to indulge in Victorian cranial measurement quackery when you’re a nursery teacher

Measuring, or modelling, is indeed only part of the trick of understanding someone’s motivations and behaviour. The real understanding comes from drawing all the data together – including observation (again, subjective in part), questioning (subjective), ethnography (partly subjective again), creative exercises (subjective), footfall in a store (objective), EPOS data (objective), survey responses (which look more objective but are often involved subjective judgements and self-reporting) and so on. But while we should be wary of getting too fixated with measurement itself, if we are going to measure,  “subjective” things, like personal well-being, should surely be part of the picture.

Looking at it the other way: asserting that GDP per head is all we need to know about our progress and health as a society is patently absurd. What is the point of life anyway – getting richer or living a fulfilled life? But one’s easily measurable, the other not. Guess which one Western cultures privilege? Back to McGilchrist on the Tyranny of the Left Brain (shorequalblog) again.

The point about the well-being stats is not that they represent everything we need to measure, but that they are one important thing to look at. The stats need to be read in conjunction with all the other things we know, both measured and immeasurable.

Why pursue happiness? Why not some other abstract good or other? That’s a big question and to answer it I’d thoroughly recommend Richard Layard’s book, which I briefly blogged about last year: Stampede of the Social Animals – Layard’s “Happiness”. He is both idealistic and realistic, visionary and completely practical. But just getting more efficient, he points out, is a road to nowhere:

Mankind has come a long way since the Stone Age, and we in the West are probably happier than any previous society. But the anxieties that were useful in the Stone Age ought to be unnecessary today. So we should rededicate our society to the pursuit of happiness rather than the goal of dynamic efficiency. Life is for living.


Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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