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Lifting moods: A reasonable policy goal?
Publication Date : 20-03-2013
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou announced last week the government's new plan to develop a "gross national happiness index" aimed at determining whether there has been an improvement in the country's well-being by using quantifiable data.
Based on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) well-known Your Better Life Index, the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) will be in charge of developing the new index by adjusting the international standard to accommodate various localised indicators.
The president said he hopes the index can help the public gauge their own improvement in well-being in relation to the world, and help the government further realign itself with international practice.
Perhaps the president also wants data to show the variations in happiness - perhaps that is the point of doing this - to see who is miserable and who is happy, in order to carve better policies.
Yet, lifting people's mood should not be a policy goal and the government should avoid relying on Facebook “Likes” to see if policies are making any difference. But, how do you measure happiness?
The first problem with measuring well-being is that happiness entails different values about the meaning of a good life. Whether you live in Taipei or Paris, well-being in love, business and family affairs have a different meaning that cannot be quantified on a scale from 1 to 10. Contrary to all expectations, questions of values are not scientific ones that can be answered the same way across a country, region or continent.
For sure, we agree that the best state of society is the one where there is the most happiness and the least misery. But well-being in society is not equal to the mean term of the country's total happiness.
It's already difficult to know what's best for you, your friends and family, and if we can't specify the things that constitute happiness either, then measuring it will be misleading - no matter how well you do it. For instance, tax cuts might sound appealing to most people, but what if reducing the government's budget leads to cuts in social programs?
Feeling good or bad is a day-to-day feeling that most of us can recognize but is not relevant for the government to set up policy goals. Take for example McDonald's decision to hand out 340,000 free breakfasts as part of its global campaign to promote breakfast.
About 5,000 McDonald's restaurants in more than 30 countries across 16 time zones throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa joined hands to encourage good breakfast eating habits. Together, the restaurant chain expected to serve up to 5 million of its Egg McMuffins during the event.
Sounds great to enjoy a free breakfast but what if you don't like Egg McMuffins that much? Yes, but don't be angry or you might impact the country's new happiness index. That's nonsense!
The truth is we don't need such an index. In fact, the countries that do well in such surveys haven't got there by having these indices. Sweden, Denmark, Canada and the like have got there by agreeing what their priorities should be. In some countries, they prioritized good health care and education, but more importantly, they've encouraged dialogue between ruling and opposition parties on setting up the agenda.
That idea crystallises what is problematic in the president's new proposal: you can only have an international index by constructing it around one specific idea. The problem is that when you try to create this single well-being index, you end up trying to nail down well-being to one conception for Taiwan, Canada and South Africa.
There is no doubt that we must create as much happiness in the world as we can, but most of the people in the world aren't us! The danger is the numbers on the index could become an end in themselves. If you think something matters you should try to measure it. There are many things you shouldn't measure. Don't, for example, try to measure how much you love your children!