How the government can make us happy

How do you make a population happy? The Office of National Statistics will soon know. From April, David Cameron wants them to start measuring “our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving. Not just by our standard of living but by our quality of life.” The ONS is to figure out how this tricky concept is to be measured. Then Cameron intends to get on with helping us improve our general “wellbeing”.

This sounds good – and it is absolutely true that GDP is, as Cameron puts it, “an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress”. But it isn’t easy to make people happy. In most cases, the best you can do is to take away the things that make them miserable and leave them to it. And, as far as I can see, the government is already supposed to be doing exactly that.

Think about what makes people unhappy – beyond the obvious culprits of hunger, pain and cold. Top of the list comes lack of security. Then there is bad health, lack of opportunity and ongoing financial worry.

Then look at what we expect from a modern government.

We expect them to provide a good and efficient health service so that when we or other members of our family are ill, we don’t have to constantly worry that we will get bad treatment or no treatment.

We expect them to provide a sound education system so that we and our children have opportunities; so we don’t have to worry that we are letting our babies down if we can’t afford a private education for them; and so that our society becomes gradually more not less equal (many studies show that people are more happy in equal than unequal societies).

We expect them to provide regulation on working environments so we don’t have to work ourselves to death to earn a living wage, and so that we have plenty of free time. We expect them to stay out of nasty wars, to keep our streets safe, to maintain justice and property rights. And finally we expect them to do this while still leaving us some of our own money to spend as we wish.

If they actually did all this, they would remove pretty much all the big things that make the majority of the population feel miserable much of time. We don’t need the government to promise us they will do more things to make us happy. We simply need them to do the things they are already supposed to do properly (something that may well be closely related to the money that a rising GDP brings). That would give us all a pretty secure base on which to attempt to build our own happiness.