Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Polly Toynbee on measuring happiness

Last month, while noting that Rutland has been found to be the happiest place in England by an Office of National Statistics report, I gave a limited defence of the idea of measuring the nation's happiness. But there are more extreme positions you could take on the idea.

You could be strongly in favour:
It is now possible to quantify people's levels of happiness pretty accurately by asking them … Happiness is a real, objective phenomenon, scientifically verifiable. That means people and whole societies can now be measured over time and compared accurately with one another. Causes and cures for unhappiness can be quantified.
Or you could be a convinced sceptic:
Visitors may puzzle over the ONS report on national happiness, where 80% of people score seven or more out of 10. But these figures will only become significant as they shift in future years: most people, unless suffering intensely, say "Fine, thanks" if asked how they feel by a stranger.
These two quotations, as the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) points out, come from the same person. Step forward, Polly Toynbee.

The first quote comes from 2006 and the second from this year. But as the IEA goes on to point out, Toynbee's change of mind must have come recently:
During the preparation phase of the report, Toynbee still called it ‘an excellent step’. Back then, she was still convinced that ‘most answers to the happiness conundrum point leftwards’, and since the coalition was not currently pursuing a far-left agenda, a happiness index logically had to produce a damning indictment: ‘[T]he ONS measurements will chart the unhappiness path he [Cameron] chose.’ 
People’s refusal to be miserable appears to have angered Toynbee for quite some time now. Both during the Diamond Jubileeand the Olympics festivities, her message was: stop celebrating! Can’t you see what’s going on? Spending cuts, free schools, welfare reform, bankers’ bonuses, private sector outsourcing, workfare – you’re supposed to feel wretched, how dare you not to?
Anyway, if both Toynbee and the IEA are now opposed to the idea of measuring happiness, I now feel happier about my lukewarm enthusiasm for the idea.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

So let me get this straight: social values are measurable when Labour is in power, but not when they are in opposition?