Office of National Statistics has reported to the public for the first time today about its mandated new measurement of national happiness and well-being. The office has already surveyed 20,000 people on four different emotional and existential questions, such as "to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?" Is this an absurd waste of tax dollars, or an important new frontier for quantitative research?The UK government's
Why is this of interest to us at ReadWriteWeb? Because the UK's commitment to open data platforms implies to me that this kind of data will someday be available programmatically for analysis, pattern detection, alert monitoring and cross-referencing with other data sets, thus enabling new acts of creativity, self-awareness and innovation. (Or creepy, authoritarian psychographic monitoring and strategic buy-offs when citizens' anger flares ups in a hamlet.) What data could be more important as a platform than data about meaning in the human experience? That's presuming that the quantification of such qualitative matters is possible and can be well executed. It's a type of project that a growing number of governments around the world are undertaking.
Why does the world need a new type of data like this? Today the standard is Gross Domestic Product, the economic output of a nation. "GDP was first developed in 1934 by economist Simon Kuznets - who was adamant it should not be used to measure the wellbeing of a nation," the UK Guardian's Simon Rogers wrote today. "It's limited by what it doesn't take account of: the value of health and educational services, inequality and poverty rankings or the state of the environment."
UK survey respondents were asked to answer on a scale of 1 to 10 the following questions:
- how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
- how happy did you feel yesterday?
- how anxious did you feel yesterday?
- to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
I think those are fascinating questions. (For the record, my replies would be 7,9,3,8. Yours?)
Questions certainly come to mind about the quality of self-reporting in surveys like this and the ability to draw any causal relationships between other factors and happiness. The data is also far from real-time so far; the first set will be made available in one year.
Finally, I worry that the human experience is complicated enough that multiple steps and multiple explanations of circumstances all add up to happiness. That's a recipe for political debate, more than quantitative clarity. Say the city of Detroit, Michigan was evaluated and deemed to be unhappy. That wouldn't be a surprise, right? But is it an unhappy city because international corporations have undercut the quality of life of the working class and a complicit government has responded with socially adverse policies regarding economic development and police activities? (Perhaps a Liberal explanation.) Or is it an unhappy city because its inhabitants have failed to adapt to the inevitable changes in the global economy and have created a culture of that de-emphasizes taking personal responsibility for their well being? (Perhaps a Conservative explanation.) I find one of those explanations potentially compelling and the other quite offensive, but I imagine you could use raw Happiness Data to support either of them.
Governments throughout Europe are focusing on quantifying happiness and wellbeing. If they can do so in a way that is of some consequence and if that data can be made publicly available, even in real-time, then the developers and data analysts of the world could have a powerful new resource at their disposal.