Happiness is...


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – so wrote Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy at the start of his novel Anna Karenina in 1873. It is clearly a thought that resonates with people as it is one of the most quoted lines from the author. But is it really true? Or are we all, as human beings, in fact happy in our own individual way? And if so, how can governments capture how we feel to guide their policy making?

An important question to ponder as we celebrate the world’s first “International Day of Happiness” on March 20, 2013. The economic, financial and social crisis that erupted in 2008 has led people to question the fundamental underpinnings of our societies and how they are governed. The discovery that the preceding boom years, far from benefiting everyone, in fact saw a widening gap between rich and poor in our societies, helped feed the idea that GDP is not an adequate measure of success in modern societies.

If our whole system needs rethinking it is essential to know what people actually want to make their lives better in the 21st century. The Internet has fundamentally changed the way we relate to others, shop and socialise, but it has also made it easier for people to link up with others with similar interests, whether it be knitting, kite flying or science fiction (March 20 is also Alien Abduction Day).

How can governments respond effectively to what people want in such a tailor-made world? At a time of tight finances when governments need to make every penny count, it is all the more important to know what people want from life. And so governments have started looking beyond GDP as a measure of progress.

But how do you measure the intangible feelings that exist only inside someone’s head? If you ask someone how healthy they feel, you can test the result with a medical check-up. But if you ask someone if they feel happy, the cross-checking mechanism is a lot more complicated.

And even when you have worked out what you want to measure to determine people’s view of their lives, how can you compare experiences with people in other countries?

The OECD’s Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, released on the first International Day of Happiness in 2013, are the first step towards developing a consistent framework for measuring how people are feeling. This includes not just what you measure, but exactly what questions you ask people, how you ask them and in what order.

Several countries (Australia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, UK to name just a few) are already collecting measures of subjective well-being, in line with the framework developed by the OECD.

The OECD Better Life Index includes both objective and subjective measures of well-being which will be further developed as more countries publish measures of subjective well-being.  

We may be a long way from being able to measure happiness with the same degree of international comparability that we have for GDP, but the new OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being are an important step towards international recognition that how we feel is an important part of measuring whether better policies are delivering better lives.

“Evaluating well-being requires our fellow citizens to prioritize their values. This is not an easy task……..Can we agree on fundamental objectives that we can collectively pursue in the long run, beyond the short term horizon of our electoral cycles? These are questions that statisticians alone cannot address.”

OECD Secretary-General, Angel Gurría at the 4th OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy on "Measuring Well-Being for Development and Policy Making "

“I am encouraged by the efforts of some Governments to design policies based on comprehensive well-being indicators. I encourage others to follow suit. On this first International Day of Happiness, let us reinforce our commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and renew our pledge to help others” –

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a message to mark the first International Day of Happiness

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