The idea has been tossed around for millennia. Perhaps economic production isn't the best way to measure a country's progress. Perhaps there is a different and truer kind of wealth, the kind of wealth that most of us work and earn money in the hope of attaining: happiness.
Now several countries are taking the value of happiness seriously. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan introduced a Gross National Happiness survey in 1972. In 2009, the French government called for a similar index, and president Barack Obama said he "welcomed" such a plan in the U.S. Earlier this year, the United Nations passed a resolution to place "happiness" on the global agenda. And in the United Kingdom, the results of the first "Measuring National Well-Being Programme" have just been released.
So how happy are the people of Britain, for whom, says The New York Times, "complaining, expecting the worst and cursing the authorities" are favorite pastimes? In response to the question, "Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?" three-quarters gave themselves a 7 or above out of 10. And when asked, "Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?" a full 80 percent responded 7 or over. The national average was 7.7.
The number was slightly lower when individuals were asked how happy they felt yesterday. The average came out to 7.3, with 10.9 percent of Britons placing themselves below 5. And when asked how anxious they felt the day before, respondents were impressively calm, with an average of 3.1 out of 10.
Women had slightly higher levels of well-being, but also said they were slightly more anxious yesterday. Black Britons had the lowest life satisfaction, coming in at an average of 6.7, while Indians had the highest at 7.5. Arabs were the most anxious yesterday, at 3.7, and whites were the least, at 3.1.
More Britons who were married, in civil partnerships, or living with a partner were blissed out at a 9 or 10 compared to those who were single, widowed or divorced. Twice as many disabled people gave themselves a life satisfaction rating below 7 than the non-disabled, and over twice as many of the unemployed ranked in below 7 than those who had jobs.
Those who had the most control over their work -- professionals, managers, directors -- had the highest satisfaction (an average of 7.7), while process, plant and machine operatives had the lowest (7.3).
But working isn't the simple secret to satisfaction. Britons between the ages 16 to 19 and retirees were actually the most satisfied with their lives. Satisfaction dips in the middle of life, reaching its lowest in the late 40s and early 50s. "So was that worth £2m?" griped The Daily Mail, referring to the equivalent of $3.1 million spent on the project.
It's the survey's inaugural year, so the questions were kept simple. But before the survey was conducted, between April 2011 and March 2012, a group of British and French thinkers gathered to discuss its possibilities.
Philosopher Alain de Botton suggested measuring everything from envy to loneliness, and remodeling the government around emotions, such as creating a "ministry of good sex." (That idea might be decently received by Britons, who according to a recent study, have sex less frequently than the rest of the world's population, except for the Japanese.)
It may sound bizarre, but a decade ago, spending tax dollars to measure the country's spirits was the stuff of dreams too. And while this thought-trail can easily creep into the realm of fluff and fancy, it also touches on a truth long championed by lawmakers, and enshrined in our country's founding document, when it declares "the pursuit of happiness" as one of man's three most fundamental rights.
"Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage," said Robert Kennedy in a 1968 speech. "It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets... It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
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