Don’t Worry, Be Happy

It seems governments do care, at least when it comes to their citizens’ happiness anyway. This past week, the UK government announced its intentions to develop a new way to quantify happiness in Britain. Essentially, the UK government is aiming to build a “happy index” which could be used when making government policy decisions – something never before done anywhere on the globe. This happiness data would look at each of their citizens’ “subjective well-being” by using factors such as quality of employment, education and personal life. A report will be released quarterly.

For inspiration and guidance, the UK is looking to Canadian experts, who have gained global credit for their past success in translating the complex idea of happiness into numbers and scientific theory.

Dr. Jason Robinson, an assistant professor of Contemporary Studies at Laurier Brantford who teaches courses on understanding statistics, feels that people need to examine these statistics carefully.

“It is very difficult to put numbers to human experience,” says Robinson. “When you have these numbers, the danger is [that] they become an authority over people when they have no say.”

The UK’s proposed strategy would be added to a host of other measures that attempt to quantify “subjective well-being” or happiness. The Gross National Happiness (GNH) measure operates on the premise that measures of “wealth” should include more than economic development, and uses psychological well-being, community vitality and culture as measures, among others.

Along with the GNH is the HPI, or Happy Planet Index. While this is not a direct measure of a country’s happiness, it examines how countries are developing in order to ensure their current citizens and those of future generations will live long and fulfilling lives.

But determining the nature of happiness has been a struggle for philosophers and scientists for millennia. Robinson notes that even the ancient Greeks, those who were at one time at the forefront of philosophical thought and conjecture, were unable to come to any sort of consensus on what happiness is.

But with the advent of modern science, experts have been able to determine a number of different processes that occur in the brain with the onset of happiness.

Dr. Kris Gerhardt, an assistant professor at Laurier Brantford who teaches courses in psychology, explains there are many factors in our lives and our brains that influence happiness.

“When it comes down to anything,” says Gerhardt, “be it happiness, love, sadness whatever, it’s the way the chemicals in your brain are interacting… It is how those things interact that we will eventually perceive as, ‘hey, I’m happy,’ or ‘hey I’m sad.’”

Despite the complexity of happiness, Gerhardt feels measures such as the proposed UK system is one viable way of understanding such puzzling emotions in practical terms.

“We quantify almost everything into numbers,” he says. “You might not like the number that is pulled out of the hat but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with quantifying anything, as long as you define what happiness is.”

Robinson, citing the long struggle that modern society has had with dissecting happiness, feels that this might all be an exercise in futility.

“If they think they can figure out what [happiness] means, they are being embarrassingly simplistic.”

A conference in Ottawa next month will look to determine how such information should be used and whether it is relevant in the creation of public policy.

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