The measure of the man


I noticed something strange today – people were talking about happiness. Not just in a casual “how are you” way but the metrics of happiness. That’s right folks, the Government have decided that they can measure our level of happiness. Or so the media would like us to believe. A range of headlines emerged yesterday and today about the level of “happiness” in the UK, from what makes us happy to what can make us less happy. apparently.  Unfortunately it is not as easy as that and the real basis of these reports is the Office for National Statistics attempts to measure National Wellbeing. As a researcher I know that finding out accurate and objective answers to highly qualitative and subjective questions is not easy. In some ways the national statisticians should be applauded for their efforts.

But dig a little deeper and what does this actually mean. Today’s headlines have been generated by a report issued by ONS on its “What Matters to You” national debate. As they state

“ONS held 175 events, involving around 7,250 people. In total the debate generated 34,000 responses, some of which were from organisations and groups representing thousands more.”

That’s quite a lot of feelings to understand (even if I am dubious about the “groups representing thousands”). So how do you do this in an objective way. Here is what ONS had to say:

“The term ‘well-being’ is often taken to mean ‘happiness’. Happiness is one aspect of the well-being of individuals and can be measured by asking them about their feelings – subjective well-being.”

So the “happiness index” isn’t about happiness per se, it’s about well being.  Not the same, in fact something which is increasingly important and potentially more valuable to understand than an easy corruptible term like happiness.  But even so, how do we measure well being. Back to ONS:

“As we define it, well-being includes both subjective and objective measures. It includes feelings of happiness and other aspects of subjective well-being, such as feeling that one’s activities are worthwhile, or being satisfied with family relationships. It also includes aspects of well-being which can be measured by more objective approaches, such as life expectancy and educational achievements.”

So overall the well being measure is a complex metric to construct and accurately measure. Even the “objective” measure are open to subjective and political interpretation.

However, in trying to measure these elements on such a large scale there is a great danger in the detail being lost. And in this case it is the feelings of individuals.  If we are judged to have a collectively high level of well being, where does that leave those who, for a variety of reasons, have a lower level of well being. What about those, to go back to the popular media presentation, who aren’t “happy”?  How do we even know when we are or are not happy?

I suppose I have two main concerns. The first is the manner is which this tool has been reported.  The media (in part driven by ONS’s use of the word in it’s own press release and report) have picked out a very emotive term, happiness, to mask a multitude of sins. Discussion of these merits more room and words than I have available here and there are useful discussions already taking place through organisations such as the New Economic Foundation. However, to write off ONS’s attempts as a waste of money as some seem to suggest misses the value in understanding the costs and benefits of modern life. If taken seriously it might eventually help identify ways in which we can change to avoid the costs, for example reducing stress and anxiety associated with the pursuit of material gains.  So it is a start but is not and never should be seen as a quick fix mark of how happy or indeed how well-off we are.

Secondly, and very much allied to the first concern, is an unease with measuring something which individuals have difficulty identifying themselves.  It is extremely difficult to measure our own happiness, stress, anxiety or mood. I know, I’ve tried. There are a whole range of books out there which sell themselves on their ability to show you how to measure how happy you are. I tried one recently and gave up, it made me more anxious. There are online tests that you can take to measure how stressed you are: the BBC are running an experimental stress test which is stressful in itself. And there tools out there which help you “monitor your mood”, Moodscope being an example.  Yet for all the value these purport to offer (and which others might find), I have found them stressful to use, limited in the meaning they offer and ultimately counter-productive.

However, to say that trying to identify and gauge one’s own stress and happiness is worthless would be wrong. I merely haven’t found the ways and means which are appropriate and meaningful to me and perhaps in looking for a value I and others are missing the point. Let’s look at it from a different perspective. If you asked me now if I was happy I would say that I am particularly unhappy. Ask me why I am and I can discuss a host of factors from the immediate incidents of the day to longer-term dissatisfactions with my life.  Now ask me to put a measure on it and I am stuck.  And this is perhaps the lesson. Whilst we get fixated on amounts and generalisations, the devil is in the detail.  Addressing my unhappiness is not about reducing it from say a 6 to a 5, rather it is about addressing the factors which cause it. In many ways they can be as hard to identify but ultimately much more worthwhile in addressing.

In sticking it to the man, there is a real measure of the (wo)man. Attention to detail and feeling is the key.

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