Dominic Lawson: Does more money make us happier? Of course it does

If your policy is one of austerity it is advisable to use something other than economic growth as a measure of your success

Share
Related Topics

A pocket cartoonist, when on form, can achieve more with a single sketch than the contents of a thousand weighty editorials. Thus, Pugh in yesterday's Daily Mail brilliantly encapsulated the eternal dispute about the exact connection between money and happiness: a doctor is telling his patient, "If the Prozac doesn't work, I'd like you to take this £5 note."

This was the artist's distillation of a 250-page report by a dozen academics, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, ("...And the pursuit of happiness: Well-being and the Role of Government") which seeks to debunk the Coalition's adoption of a General Wellbeing Index to supplement or even replace Gross Domestic Product as a measure of its success.

The IEA chose yesterday as its launch because it knew that newspapers for the past few years have been in the habit of publishing stories based on the notion that the third Monday in January is the "most depressing day of the year". This all stems from the work of Cliff Arnall, a self-styled "happiness guru", who in 2005 produced pseudo-scientific gobbledegook purporting to prove that this would always be the day of maximum misery for Britons. No matter that two years ago Arnall admitted his theory was "not particularly helpful": while it certainly does us no benefit to be told we should be feeling gloomy, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Yesterday, one newspaper used the bogus Blue Monday to plug the wares of a company which offers "light therapy... to help beat the blues"; and the IEA, as noted, has found it useful as a means of drawing attention to its counterblast against David Cameron's "happiness agenda".

Those who follow such matters will recall that last year, on orders from 10 Downing Street, the Office for National Statistics launched a survey, asking hundreds of thousands of families "how happy they are" – and other related questions. This was all in furtherance of Cameron's 'happiness agenda', following on from a speech he made in 2010 invoking Robert Kennedy's remark that "Gross Domestic Product measures everything... except that which makes life worthwhile" and his earlier claim that as Prime Minister he would focus on "GWB [General Wellbeing] rather than GDP".

There are at least two distinct reasons why the Conservative leader is pursuing this agenda (aside from the possibility, odd as it might seem, that he genuinely believes in it). The first is that if your policy is one of retrenchment and austerity, it is advisable to come up with something other than economic growth as a measure of your success. The second is that Cameron has always sought to "decontaminate the Tory brand association" with the idea that it is dedicated only to personal enrichment. What better way to emphasise that than by associating the party with touchy-feely happiness gurus, rather than with free-market think-tanks... such as the IEA.

As Philip Booth, the co-ordinator of the IEA's ideological fight back against Cameron's tidal wave of sentiment, points out, the Prime Minister attacks a straw man by stating that previous governments had been solely concerned with economic growth: "If that were the case, we would have had much more liberal planning laws."

The value of GDP as a measure of achievement (whether or not credited to government rather than the private sector which actually generates the income the state redistributes according to its own interpretation of the popular will) is precisely that it is measurable. Ever since Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century constructed his "felicific calculus", with its components of "intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent", it has been clear the measurement of happiness is a doomed venture: what we call happiness – itself a challenge – is not something that can be converted into numbers or units.

It is also not as self-evident, as most people now seem to suppose, that individual happiness is the most important thing in the world. Dr Martin Seligman, a pioneer of "positive psychology", has recently acknowledged this, denouncing what he terms "happy-ology" and concluding that: "What humans want is not just happiness... if that were all people were interested in, we should have been extinguished a long time ago."

While the Daily Mirror, eternal critic of anything emanating from the Conservative Party, is hardly unbiased, it is right to characterise the Prime Minister's happiness index – complete with nationwide surveys – as a "potty waste of money". It cited this response from one of its readers to the Office for National Statistics' question "What would make you happier?": "Better quality pies and chip butties... cheese and tomato toasties with ketchup on the side, white bread. Bacon sandwiches, actually sandwiches in general."

To the extent that there is an interesting political argument to be had in this point at which economics collides with psychology, it lies in the attempts by some on the left to demonstrate that high levels of income inequality lead to the greater unhappiness of the greatest number and that, therefore, to the extent that government gets involved, it should act more to reduce those inequalities, chiefly through fiscal measures. (Of course, it already does so, with a "progressive" tax policy, under which many millions are net recipients of tax credits while, at the top, the highest earners are required to forgo half of their gross income.)

The fashionable argument that inequality foments unhappiness is, however, bedevilled by a lack of rigour in terminology. As Professor Paul Ormerod points out in his contribution to the IEA's book, there is a distinction between the general inequality that exists between the richest and poorest in a nation, and the relative inequality between individuals living in close proximity to each other. The former has gained the greatest attention as an alleged cause of unhappiness, but it is the latter which is more significant in real life, or as Ormerod puts it: "Relative income involves jealous glances over the garden fence, while income inequality requires envy of the distant rich." If it is true, as Ormerod argues, that the former is a much more potent source of misery, what is government to do about that? Nothing at all, I would argue, except perhaps to say that jealousy of the next door neighbour's bigger garden is most unattractive.

As for the perennial question of whether more money makes people happier, one can't beat the nine-word summary of professors Blanchflower and Oswald: "Money buys happiness. People also care about relative income."

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: The sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital