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Today is a happiness and well-being day. Well, sort of…

I started the morning doing a piece on the Today programme linked to the launch of Action for Happiness and the continuing work of the Office of National Statistics on well-being measures (by the way, the closing date for submission to the ONS consultation is Friday). On the radio, I was up against Sheila Lawlor from Politeia, who thinks the state shouldn’t really interfere in anything (apart from national defence) let alone trying to help us enjoy our lives.   

Then we launched Gallup’s well-being and health survey to a packed Great Room. Paul Allin from ONS and David Halpern from Number Ten responded to the data.

So, at the risk of being repetitive, this is a chance to summarise the main reasons in favour of Governments, and those seeking to influence Governments, wanting to understand what drives well-being.        

First, decades of research have offered reasons to believe (a) that GDP growth and a variety of other traditional indicators are not a sufficient basis for describing national social progress and (b) that there are reasonably reliable ways of measuring various forms of well-being.

Second, the debate about well-being can be more interesting and engaging than much of the technocratic squabbling which has passed for political debate since the decline of traditional class politics. Some people, like John Humphries this morning, criticise ideas like happiness and well-being by saying they are subjective notions. But not only can aspects of well-being be objectively measured and averaged across large groups, the very fact that these ideas are contested makes for a valuable debate.

Third, on a more personal level - and here I return to a tune I have been playing a lot lately - the debate about what makes us feel good and enjoy life helps us see that the things we want now, the things we want for the long term and the things which seem to make us happiest are often not the same and that part of being an effective person is understanding and grappling with this fact of human nature.

Fourth, all this stuff can lead to very concrete insights.  Action for Happiness (which has gone off like a rocket judging by the amount of traffic on its website) points out that investing in mental health services offers a much greater happiness premium than most other forms of public investment. David Halpern this morning emphasised (another old tune) that well-targeted spending on public health is much more cost effective in terms of well-being than spending on health care.

The Gallup people brought their own new dimensions. Their research puts fulfilling work at the top of the agenda and they say the UK isn’t too good at it. In comparison to the US, for example, only 42% of UK employees say their employer treats them more like a partner than a boss, whereas in the US it’s 59%. This has a big impact. 63% of people who Gallup describes as having 'thriving' lives say they have a good work environment but only 52% of those in poor work environments.

Fortunately, this is not an issue at the RSA. At John Adam Street Pilates is the secret to well–being and good employee relations. Staff pay for a group session on Tuesday lunchtimes and after several of my colleagues have watched me fail to touch my nose with my knee without straining and grunting, all my managerial authority has seeped away.  I wouldn’t be able to boss them around even if I wanted to.


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