Putting a price on wellbeing

Pat Kane, in today’s Guardian, provides an interesting, if slightly confusing article on the British Government’s attempts to measure happiness.

The wellbeing agenda isn’t navel-gazing, it’s innovation and survival

As with many government studies, such as measuring the value of natural resources such as rainforests in terms of economic value, happiness is also seen in terms of monetary value to the unhappy person.

This can lead to some interesting “findings”. The article links to an an article about the “income compensation technique” with a quite extraordinary section on how much people feel the need to be compensated for, for the loss of happiness-making activities:

Private income is such a weak correlate of happiness, when compared to ‘social’ and public goods, that it often takes extraordinarily large monetary payments to compensate for the loss of non-market goods. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport study found that regular attendance of concerts had an impact on happiness equivalent to £9,000 of additional income. Elsewhere, studies have shown that an unemployed person would need an annual income of £250,000 to compensate for the psychological injury of not having a job.

As is so often the case with these types of commentaries, it is the public’s response which is almost more interesting and revealing, since they show such a wide response to this type of new thinking, however good or bad, or well or ill-conceived. Have a look at the comments and you will see what I mean; plenty of cynicism and not much support for these measures of wellbeing.

The case for developing new measures of happiness is not that well articulated in this particular article, but it is well worth the effort, since Kane rightly points to important work on planetary limits and the devastating impact on the environment of our consumerist lifestyles. His is just one voice amongst many, and in time I hope that people really do come to understand the need to rethink our lives, and rediscover happiness through intrinsic drivers, and true prosperity in lives of rich relationships.

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