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Satisfaction with life: The UK government’s bid to measure happiness

The UK government recently announced plans to “measure happiness” in the country, at an apparent cost of £2 million. The Prime Minister’s argument for this being that GDP is too crude a measure for the achievements of a nation or, more likely, a government dealing in deficit reduction. In the last couple of days the ONS announced what questions would be included in the ‘happiness survey’, with the key question being one of satisfaction with life.

But haven’t economists been doing this for years?

Depending on your own interpretation of ‘utility’, economists have been studying it for centuries. There has certainly been a recent development of a wide literature on the economics of well-being, and a resurgence in experienced utility theory. Furthermore, questions on satisfaction with life have been included in the British Household Panel Survey for no less than the last 12 years (begging the question, “£2 million for what?”)! This is nothing new.

But what does this mean for health economists?

The cynical view, held by this contributor, is that this is no more than a politically-driven PR stunt; inspired by the government’s knowledge that it will be unable to generate any significant GDP growth over the next few years. Nevertheless, I believe there will be implications for future research and policy. In recent years there have been suggestions in the literature that health economists could be adopting satisfaction with life, well-being or happiness as a maximand for policy and evaluation. In the future we may see these ideas being strengthened and supported by government policy, and potentially being forced upon the wider health economics community. I, for one, believe this to be a potentially positive move for the field; if measures of well-being undergo more thorough analyses in relation to health.

But is this a popular move amongst health economists? Probably not. Are NICE vulnerable to an overhaul of their reference case? Possibly. Will this policy influence future health economics research in the UK? Surely.

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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