In 1997 I experienced one of the sharpest cultural contrasts in the developed world by simple dint of crossing the Atlantic. I moved from Paris to Washington, from France to the United States, from a country supposedly quaking under the demands of modernity to one preening itself on being the richest and most powerful country in the world. In very many respects, my quality of life plummeted – this was not primarily to do with money, but to do with everything else.
The five years I spent living and working in America – fascinating, productive and enjoyable as they were – made me a growth-sceptic. Gross domestic product, or even per capita income, it increasingly seemed to me, were completely inadequate, even deceptive, measures of a country's success. Nothing that I have seen in the past 10 years has convinced me to revise that view.
Initially, growth-sceptics were given a hard time by most conventional economists, who – in so far as they entertained any misgivings about the primacy of GDP – simply wrung their hands and insisted that these were the most objective criteria anyone had. The more combative among them countered that without growth there could be no rise in living standards and, by the way, the French and Germans had to shape up and knuckle down to the American way.
By the time I left Washington, though, there was at least an argument to be had, and it had come to crystallise around the competing merits of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model – exemplified by the US and, to a slightly lesser extent, Britain's New Labour – and the Continental European way of doing things, which entailed higher taxes, more public ownership, more regulation and the social safety-net. With that argument came the perennial question of happiness, its place in international comparisons and whether it should, or even could, be measured. David Cameron's call for a "happiness index" for Britain re-opens that dispute.
Whether we call it happiness or quality of life – and I see these as two sides of the same non-monetary coin – it is surely not impossible to define some of the elements that make the difference. My moves from Paris to Washington and back to London offer pointers. What was so unsatisfactory about life in Washington compared with Paris? London, characteristically, falls somewhere in between.
One big element was convenience. You needed a car just to get to somewhere where you could buy normal groceries. Another was the quality of daily necessities. Much supermarket food was dire, processed rather than fresh; everything, including savouries, tasted sweet and meat was so adulterated that it shrank to a tiny piece of leather when cooked. Anything better carried a big price premium, magnifying health differences between rich and poor.
A third would be the high level of general anxiety and the low level of civility and inefficiency of service compared with much of Europe. Even relatively secure middle-class people were rarely free of the fear that their living standards could be shattered by illness. For parents, affording college fees for their children was a perpetual worry. Justified by the crime figures or not, personal safety was an ever-present concern.
Fourth would be life-work balance, with employees working long hours and entitled only to short paid holidays, and tremendous social pressure, especially on women, to keep up social appearances and generally conform. And fifth might be the standards and aesthetics of public space. Few places offer a more vivid example of JK Galbraith's "private affluence and public squalor" than Washington DC. To see how different things could be, you didn't even have to traverse the Atlantic, you had only to cross the border into more "European" Canada.
For some, US classlessness, the chance for perpetual personal reinvention, the generally positive reputation of wealth, or the wide, wild open spaces, will trump the considerations that define quality of life for many Europeans. What cannot now be denied, however, is that a higher GDP does not necessarily produce a superior quality of life. It might even be that some government efforts to increase GDP actually divert investment away from things that would enhance the general sense of wellbeing. Certainly, if I were a French or German politician, I would demand an apology from the US and Britain for the self-righteous lectures about growth they delivered during their credit-fuelled economic booms.
Of course, it is one thing to identify elements that can contribute to quality of life, and another to be able to measure them in a meaningful way. But to select certain indicators – such as quality of housing, leisure time, socialising, family relations, experience of social nuisance, such as hooliganism or noise, convenience of transport and access to decent quality everyday shopping – would have a point. It is these prosaic factors, quite as much as pay, that determine contentment. Commercial organisations know this – which is the point of their pesky surveys. Why should governments be so wary of trying to gauge national morale?
It is not as if GDP figures are without subjective and interpretative aspects, either. Take statistics for personal income: there is pay and there is purchasing power; pay before and after tax. There is pay per hour and pay per week or month; income per individual and per household. For some, there will be a trade-off between shorter working hours and higher pay, so that lower pay plus more free time may equal a better quality of life. That can be a personal choice or a national preference, and it is an option associated with the so-called European model. To sit in a Continental café on a weekend afternoon and watch people enjoying themselves in a relaxed way is to glimpse a delight in life that in much of Britain has been lost.
Could it be that, in asking the happiness question, David Cameron – a generally fortunate politician – has spotted an opportunity to raise the spirit of a generally hard-pressed and angst-ridden nation? If less work can be shared out more equitably, and a consequence is that more people have more time to stop and stare, then relative failure in terms of economic growth could be more than matched by success in terms of quality of life – although I accept you might have to be an inveterate optimist to believe that.