The recent publication of the first crop of UK wellbeing data by the Office of National Statistics raises more questions than it answers. Just what is it about remote Scottish islands that is so conducive to wellbeing? Is this sort of thing really what Government should be doing, and does Government policy really influence happiness? And now that Government has done it… what use will it be?
Maybe the last question can help answer the other two. Leaving aside the difficulties of measuring something so subjective and, perhaps, transient, work needs to be done to bridge the gap between the availability of these data and the process of making policy. One role for the information may be to help inform trade-offs between decisions, and recent coverage of the UK’s continuing economic slump may provide a useful test ground.
One of the oddest scapegoats for poor growth figures has been extra bank holidays. Last year’s Royal Wedding saw billion-pound sums bandied about as the estimated cost to the economy of the additional day off. This year’s Diamond Jubilee, meanwhile, has been widely cited as one of the key factors in the 0.7% fall in GDP in quarter two of this year.
But do these figures actually have much of a bearing on anything genuinely important, or are they just a placeholder in the absence of more meaningful information? Unlike structural factors such as the skills gap, inadequate infrastructure, overregulation or whatever else you care to name or blame, loss of output because people happened to be away from work for an extra day that month has nothing to do with the underlying strength of the economy.
On the other hand, we know from experience that an extra day off makes people happier. The argument about happier people being more productive can hopefully be left waiting in the wings: if we can use these new data to pit the negative effects on gross domestic product of an extra day off against the positive effects on wellbeing, it might help convince the grey brigade of what we all know from experience – a bit of extra time off is a Good Thing.
We have fewer bank holidays than anywhere else in Europe. Getting this situation sorted out could be a suitably discrete, easily comprehensible and thoroughly worthwhile opportunity for the ‘happiness index’ to make its mark.