The idea that government policy should be focused more explicitly on promoting happiness has been gaining support. Proponents of this view argue that happiness indicators, based on surveys that purport to measure how happy people feel, have stagnated over decades. An important reason is that governments have aimed to maximise a narrowly defined materially based measure of economic welfare, gross national product, rather than a more holistic indicator of welfare based on happiness.
This premise is clearly false. Politicians have always sought to achieve many things that are not designed to increase GNP. The most recent public service agreements on the British Treasury website, for example, spell out government commitments to make schoolchildren do more physical education, increase participation in the arts and reduce scrapie in sheep. Presumably these are not just oblique ways of boosting the economy.
A decades-long flat happiness trend could be showing that government policies in general fail; that efforts to improve the human lot through the political process over the past 50 years have proved futile. But this would be a depressing conclusion. Instead, happiness advocates make a scapegoat out of GNP and argue that economic growth is irrelevant or detrimental to happiness.
The alternative view is that the happiness data over time contain little or no genuine information. We simply cannot rely on such data as an indicator of anything useful. Indeed, they show no correlation with a whole range of factors that might reasonably be thought to improve well-being, such as a massive increase in leisure time, a tendency to live longer and a decline in gender inequality.
Income inequality is often claimed to be a strong determinant of happiness, and this "fact" used to argue for more progressive taxation. Yet we do not see any change in recorded happiness when inequality goes up or down. We are also told there has been a large rise in depression in recent decades, but this is not reflected by a downturn in measured happiness.
Sometimes we are told that happiness has failed to increase because the benefits of economic growth have been offset by a breakdown in family and community relationships. But the normative implication of this argument is that policymakers should be indifferent because, by this supposedly all- encompassing measure of welfare, we are no worse off than we were before. Not even the most dismal orthodox economist would claim that material wealth is a substitute for kinship.
Government attempts to increase measured happiness, rather than making life better for us, may well do the opposite: create arbitrary objectives that divert civil service energies from core responsibilities; give many people the message that happiness emanates from national policy rather than our own efforts; and create pressure for government to appear to increase an indicator that has never before shifted systematically in response to any policy or socioeconomic change. These are exactly the mistakes of the target-driven mentality that now pervades the British public sector. We should learn from these rather than replicate them.
More sinisterly, the happiness view of the world has tendencies that are inherently anti-democratic. The expert with his or her clipboard and regressions knows better than ordinary people themselves what makes them happy. So local democratic or individual decisions can be overridden with a clean conscience. Because, at face value, promoting happiness is an incontestable aim, it would be ideal for steamrolling opposition to policies that, on closer inspection, pose the same very real tough choices that are a continual presence in politics.
GNP is not an all-encompassing measure of welfare; it simply measures the size of the economy. There are many things important to our wellbeing that are not captured by it. Those things need to be sustained by a strong civil society and democratically accountable, well-run government. If we cannot make convincing cases for them without "scientific proof" that they make people happy, we are morally adrift. Government does not fail because it does not measure happiness; it fails when its energies are misdirected on the basis of poor quality information.