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Measuring general wellbeing – how and why?

Capitalism sells GNP and some of its supporters now want to measure GWB. Socialism will promote only GWB.

Studies of happiness have a long history. Aristotle wrote about happiness as human flourishing and purpose to life, as opposed to the modern cept of hedonism as the simple pursuit of pleasure.

Prime minister Cameron is trying to get the concept of general wellbeing up and running even in the midst of public service cuts and soaring living costs. He is sticking to a policy commitment he made while still in opposition in 2006: ‘It’s time we admitted that there is more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but in GWB – general wellbeing’, adding ‘Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times’ (Times, 22 May 2006).

The Office for National Statistics will decide on the wording of the questions to be put in the General Household Survey starting in April. Its head, Lil Matheson, said in a BBC Radio 4 interview that she preferred the wider concept of wellbeing to that of happiness. Writing in the Guardian (15 November), Allegra Stratton thought that, in addition to questions on happiness, the survey is likely to include ‘How much purpose does your life have?’ and ‘Are men and women treated fairly in the workplace and home?’

We have good reason to be suspicious about why the government should put money into measuring people’s wellbeing in circumstances that are far from improving their actual wellbeing. We may recall the line of crucified men in Monty Python’s Life of Brian happily singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!’

It would be no surprise to find many members of the general public expressing fairly high levels of wellbeing. But any such survey results would need to be interpreted with care. Studies of job satisfaction have found that up to 80 percent of workers say they are very or fairly satisfied with their job. But their ‘satisfaction’ is often based on a belief that their chances of finding something better are small or nil, so it’s a good idea to make the best of the job they’ve got.

In socialism there may well be surveys of public opinion, including questions on wellbeing. Such research would be part of organising production and distribution of goods and services only for need, not profit. Questions on wellbeing would emphasise making things better for people, not making people feel better about things.

STAN PARKER