Richard Layard: And so begins the strange era of feel-good politics...

The value lies in finding out what causes people to be happy or unhappy

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This is the beginning. We're heading toward a situation where we can make policy based not only on how it will affect our GDP, but on how it will affect the well-being of the people.

It is a great thing that the Office for National Statistics is doing this as part of a wider exercise in which a population of 200,000 is being sampled over 12 months. The value lies not just in finding the average happiness of the nation, but in what causes people to be happy or unhappy. That will come out in later surveys.

These surveys aren't perfect. There's something a bit arbitrary about an answer to one question and there can be a random element in subjective responses. But asking more than one question is useful for getting a fix on a person, and previous research has shown the correlation between the responses people make in such surveys and objective measurements of activity in the part of the brain that deals with the relevant feeling. Many people, including economists, have recently become more inclined to take these subjective surveys more seriously.

What will be really valuable is that sample sizes in the next phase of the survey will be big enough in each local authority area to see the distribution of well-being. We will see where the pockets of misery are. Every council will be interested in these numbers.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been pushing its members to measure happiness, and Britain has responded faster than most countries. An international standard will soon be set for how these surveys can be done. We will be able to compare the happiness of nations in the same way we can compare the GDP-per-head of nations.

Richard Layard is the director of the Well-Being Programme at the LSE Centre for Economic Performance, and author of 'Happiness: Lessons from a new science'

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