26 Nov 2010

UK PM on quest to measure happiness

2:55 pm on 26 November 2010

British Prime Minister David Cameron has launched a quest to define national happiness.

Mr Cameron is trying to come up with a statistical definition of national wellbeing - for use by government policy-makers.

His critics have dismissed the idea as an irrelevant and insensitive gimmick in what's been dubbed an "age of austerity".

However, Mr Cameron insists his £2 million plan to measure the nation's happiness is not "woolly".

He said economic growth remained the most "urgent priority" but he wanted a better measure of how the country was doing than GDP.

From April, the Office for National Statistics will ask people to rate their own well-being with the first official happiness index due in 2012. Before that, it wants the public to give their views.

The BBC reports Labour also attempted to measure quality of life when it was in power but then-prime minister Tony Blair abandoned the idea, after it proved too difficult to pin down.

Mr Cameron first floated the idea of a "happiness index" in 2005, when he was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

He argues that gross domestic product (GDP) - the standard measure of economic activity used around the world - is no longer up to the job.

"We'll continue to measure GDP as we've always done, but it is high time we admitted that, taken on its own, GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country's progress," he said.

Mr Cameron also hit back at claims that he should be focusing solely on economic growth as the country tries to emerge from recession.

He said the government's "most urgent priority is to get the economy moving, to create jobs, to spread opportunity for everyone.

"Without a job that pays a decent wage it is hard for people to look after their families in the way that they want, whether that's taking the children on holiday or making your home a more comfortable place.

"Without money in your pocket it is difficult to do so many of the things that we enjoy."

Long term focus

But he said the government also had to focus on the long-term and he said "the country would be better off if we thought about well-being as well as economic growth".

GDP was too "crude" a measure of progress as it failed to take into account wider social factors - he cited the example of "irresponsible" marketing to children, an immigration "free for all" and a "cheap booze free for all", which had all boosted economic growth at the expense of social problems.

Mr Cameron admitted measuring happiness could be seen as "woolly" and "impractical".