Measuring Wellbeing & Happiness- Can It Be Done and If So How?

by Tina Gibbons

measuring wellbeingThe following report came out on the Guardian website Monday, outlining how the ONS propose to measure well-being and happiness following the new governments call to measure well-being as well as GDP.

So, How Do You Measure Wellbeing & Happiness?

In many ways I was delighted when I first heard the proposal to measure wellbeing.  For years I've been frustrated by the way government focuses so much on the economy, with the assumption that a good economy produces a strong society, and I've grown concerned over the constant drive for British people to be the best - the strongest economy, the best for education and research, the most generous to the needy - etc etc etc.  It's such a competitive and financially focused model. I've stood on the outside watching, thinking.  What about the happiness and wellbeing of all the children who are pushed and pushed to be the best academically, so that they can get "good" jobs.  We all know that wealth doesn't equal happiness, so I've wondered when governments are going to catch up and start thinking about our happiness and wellbeing as something completely separate to our economy. I've wondered when the happiness of the nation will be considered more important, or at least as important as the wealth and global standing of the nation.  So - when David Cameron announced that he wanted to start measuring wellbeing and happiness I was absolutely delighted... AT LAST!!!

The dilemma comes of course in how to deliver on this rather tall order. Just how do you measure the wellbeing and happiness of a nation?  The above report explains how the ONS propose to go about this almighty task.  

My views and opinions on this are evolving as time progresses, but at the moment there are two main points that I'm concerned about.

1. Getting hung up on happiness

There is an overall assumption that good wellbeing equals happiness.  I'm worried about this focus on happiness.  I mean, I know that ultimately we all want to be happy, but by focusing so heavily on happiness do we start to regard sadness as something that we want to avoid? Sadness has it's place in the rich tapestry of human emotion - and it's a normal AND healthy human reaction to feel sad about certain events, situations and circumstances.  There is a massive tendency already to place perfectly natural human suffering under the label of a mental illness. My concern is that a continued focus on happiness will increase this trend and increase the expectations of people in general, to the point that people think there is something wrong with them when they feel sad - even though they are perfectly justified to feel sad!  I felt a little reassured on this point when I read the above report, because it seems to shift the emphasis to contentment...  I hope contentment becomes the key measure of wellbeing, rather than happiness.

2. No mention of prescription trends

The other area that concerns me is that it seems to me that trends showing an increase in people experiencing mental health issues is a sure sign that the wellbeing of a nation is suffering.  I don't know if I was missing something, but I didn't see any reference to this key indicator in the above report. They mentioned comparing the mental health issues of poorer people over wealthier people... but I don't understand the relevance of that. Mental health issues effect both the poor and rich, but in different ways... Wealth doesn't provide contentment and peace of mind. I would love to see a drive towards reducing and reversing the current prescription trends as an essential part of any new wellbeing model.  This would encourage GPs and mental health professionals to embrace "diagnose and prescribe" models LESS and natural approaches to emotional wellbeing MORE.

In summary, I believe that increasing trends in mental health issues and prescriptions for antidepressants or other psychological drugs are all a sure sign that there are much greater issues within society that are influencing the wellbeing of the nation.  How much further than that do we need to look in order to measure the wellbeing and happiness of the nation?

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