LONDON -- "UK population's happiness is on the up," trumpeted a headline in the Guardian. What the headline was referring to are the results of a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics meant to measure Britain's national well-being. While the idea of measuring a country's well-being by something other than just its GDP is certainly important, the question is how the alternative index is compiled, and how it correlates with other data on health and well-being. I'm solidly behind any effort to show that we're more than just our marginal contribution to our bank account, the bottom line of our employer, or the gross national product of our country. But it's important to look at the whole picture.
In this case, the Office for National Statistics based its conclusions entirely on a survey that asked around 165,000 people 16 and older a few questions about how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale of zero to 10. With this methodology, the ONS found that happiness in the U.K. has gone up to 7.45 from 7.41 in 2012. Is this really a meaningful difference, one solid enough to conclude that happiness in Britain is on the rise?
For instance, Gallup, which has been conducting well-being surveys for years, discovered that asking questions about politics before well-being questions can significantly affect the results. This isn't surprising, but it does illustrate the danger of drawing serious conclusions from answers that are so susceptible to momentary context.
Even more dodgy, as they like to say here, was the suggestion in the U.K. report for why this miniscule uptick in happiness occurred in the first place: because of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games held in London. If this is truly the case -- and these events really did affect the index, then that just shows all the more how superficial a measure of happiness the ONS survey is.
Angus Deaton is a Princeton economics professor who wrote a paper on the instability of the Gallup measure. "In a world of bread and circuses, measures like happiness that are sensitive to short-term ephemera, and that are affected more by the arrival of St. Valentine's Day than to a doubling of unemployment," he wrote, "are measures that pick up the circuses but miss the bread."
The U.K. is certainly not alone in recognizing the worth of measuring what's really worthwhile in our lives. In America, President Obama commissioned a panel that includes Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman to come up with a way to measure "subjective well-being." The panel also includes Obama's chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Krueger, who once published a paper trying to measure "the flow of emotional experience during daily activities."
But the problem is that almost all of these efforts rely heavily, or in some cases completely, on survey questions.
This can lead to conclusions like the one that the ONS drew from its survey: that, because the data from 2007-2011 was largely unchanged, the U.K. showed a "picture of stability."
In fact, it's pretty easy to find real data for the U.K. that would easily beef up the accuracy of the happiness index. For instance, in the U.K., antidepressant use has gone up almost 500 percent since 1991. From 2010-2011, the NHS spent over Â£49 million for sleeping pills -- an increase of over 17 percent from three years previous. And 8 million people in the U.K. suffer from anxiety disorders, at a cost of nearly Â£9.8 billion.
Not exactly a "picture of stability." Actions speak louder than words, and when you have 45 million instances of people in the U.K. making the effort to get a prescription for an anti-depressant in 2011-- and suffer the not-inconsiderable side effects -- it's hard to conclude that happiness is breaking out all over.
A true happiness index should include not only data like the use of antidepressants and sleeping pills, but vacation days unused, alcoholism rates, suicide rates, the incidence of illnesses linked to stress like diabetes and high blood pressure, health care spending for stress-related illnesses, the percentage of employers offering wellness programs and flexible work schedules, and the number of work days lost to stress.
The usefulness of happiness and well-being studies in the public policy world has not yet been demonstrated. But our well-being is too important to use superficial measures that, whether intentionally or not, end up letting governments off the hook by ignoring data that show serious challenges to well-being. If it's a problem that can be solved by watching the Diamond Jubilee or Usain Bolt win three gold medals, it's not a serious problem. To reach a real place of true well-being, we need an accurate picture of where we stand.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is email@example.com.)