The question is, of course, a staple of sitcoms. The joke is that we know the answer, whatever the character says or doesn’t say in response.  It’s usually ‘No’, but at least we get the comfort of seeing someone else have a bad day in the context of a comedy. Laughter might not be a patch on prescription painkillers, but it’s a cheap medicine and often an adequate one for the situation. Work tends to come off badly in comedies, with most of the laughs coming at someone’s expense: when we chuckle at a workplace sitcom, we are more likely to be laughing at them than with them. King of the heap for me in this context is The Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin. I can’t help but feel that the current remake is getting an unfairly lukewarm press. Leonard Rossiter is probably an impossible act to follow, but the writing remains as blissful as ever. And the critics may have bestowed only mixed blessings, but I’ve loved the updating of hopeless, incompetent Doc Morrissey in the original series to ‘The Wellness Person’ – a character so wet that even the most absorbent kitchen towel would surely struggle.

So I did a double-take recently, when I switched from an episode of the new series on iPlayer to a news story on the BBC website about the – in context – rather disconcerting headline “Government ‘planning to measure people’s happiness’”. Suppressing the mental image of a statistician gauging my wellbeing by the number of scented candles, glasses of red wine or Reiki sessions I need to get through the week, I read on. I’ve never encountered The UK’s National Statistician, Jil Matheson, who will oversee the happiness measurement, but I’d hazard a guess there are fewer chuckles at her expense than at The Wellness Person – which seems only right. She’s quoted by the BBC as follows:

Important though that indicator [gross domestic product]is, there is a need to look at broader economic measures, ‘quality-of-life’ indicators and the impact progress has on the environment to assess national well-being, and how the UK is doing.”

Different assessments of wellbeing aren’t anything new, of course, so there are some answers already available. Gallup’s Global Wellbeing Report 2005-9 (download a PDF copy) summarises the situation in Britain as follows:

  • Thriving: 54%
  • Struggling: 44%
  • Suffering: 2%

These scores are based on our perception of our position and experience now and in the future: the long-term view of wellbeing. Countries also get a Daily Wellbeing score, defined as follows: “daily wellbeing averages (0-10 scoring) based on responses to 10 items measuring daily experiences (feeling well-rested, being treated with respect, smiling/laughter, learning/interest, enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, and anger).

I couldn’t help but notice that the UK’s score was 7.4 – lower than several countries in which the majority of the population were ‘struggling’, including Namibia (8.1), Mali (8.0), Paraguay (8.3), Indonesia (8.2), and Iceland (8.2). The highest score for daily experience (8.4) was recorded in Panama, where thriving (58%) and struggling (39%) percentages weren’t hugely different from our own. We’re doing ok, internationally speaking, but the figures suggest we don’t seem to feel quite so ok about it.

But like anything you measure, the results vary dramatically depending on the questions you ask. Consider three other international surveys: The World Map of Happiness, produced by the University of Leicester (UK: 41st, Panama: 39th), the Happy Planet Index, introduced by the New Economics Foundation (UK: 74th, Panama: 18th), and the Legatum Prosperity Index (UK:13th, Panama: 40th). The most consistent performers – and I have to use the adjective lightly, given the variations – seem to be Costa Rica (1st, 13th, 33rd), Canada (89th, 10th 7th) or Norway (88th, 19th, 1st).

If these different indices can produce such different results (as Spiked Online commented, “world happiness rankings reveal more about the prejudices of their compilers than they do about the inhabitants of different nations”), asking us what makes us happy doesn’t seem so illogical, but the devil is in the detail of the questions. And I hope ‘Do you enjoy completing questionnaires’ isn’t the first question, especially if it’s going to be followed by ‘Do clipboards bring you joy and satisfaction?’.

The temptation to smirk – a source of a brief inner glow all in itself – is enormous, of course, as is the temptation to wonder if someone’s read one issue too many of Marie Claire or Red. Attempting to measure something qualitative rather than quantitative about the human experience is not, however, particularly groundbreaking. As Jiehae Choi and Nathan Gamester point out at the ConservativeHome blog:

Aristotle famously pondered the nature of happiness in his text Eudemonia.  The American Founding Fathers included the pursuit of happiness as one of the fundamental tenets of the Declaration of Independence, and eighteenth century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who advocated for utilitarianism, argued that the goodness of an action should be judged by its consequences on human happiness.  More recently in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy emphasised the limitations of economic indicators such as the Gross National Product, in determining wellbeing, explaining that it “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile.”

All of which is true, but a) if the ONS question compiler is reading: using ‘famously’ directly after ‘Aristotle’ might not be wise in a national survey as opposed to a political blog, and b) happiness is not so much a moveable feast as a banquet – we’ll tend to pick different dishes. Given the nation’s tendency, faced with a Government wanting to know what makes us happy, to react along the lines of ‘I say old thing, is one having a laugh?’, a wide range of people have commented online. Take this one, writing for DigitalFEAT, run by Fife Employment Access Trust (a group concerned about the lack of employment opportunities for people in Fife with mental health problems):

So, government, what makes me, the so called average guy, happy? First, motorcycles. Second, family. Third, friends. Fourth, writing. Fifth, movies. Sixth, music. Seventh, eating. Eighth, learning. Ninth, comedy. Tenth, tattoos.  Put like that, it sounds simple. In a way, I suppose it is. But notice, I don’t attempt to measure how each part to the happiness puzzle measures up or how much it contributes to the whole. That’s because I don’t know and I don’t pretend to.”

While Chancellor Osborne has been quoted as saying that there is “widespread acknowledgement that GDP is not the ideal measure of well-being”, I have no idea how he might place tattoos and learning relative to each other in on the Personal Nirvana Scale. The other question I can imagine turning up a lot in response, having spent most of my life in the UK, is ‘Who’s asking, and why?’. As Tim Harford, an FT columnist, points out in an excellent article in his own blog:

Even the Anglo-Saxon countries fret at least as much about unemployment as they do about GDP growth, and with good reason. Happiness research has confirmed that unemployment is a particularly miserable experience. Yet jobs were on the political agenda long before happiness research existed.”

There is increasingly widely available data that affluence does not directly lead to greater happiness: the law of diminishing returns sets in, as Oliver James explored in his book Affluenza. Since it was published in 2007, however, we’ve moved from a world where some of us choose to ‘downshift’ to a world where downshifting is – for some of us – coming from above. Perhaps the Chancellor is, understandably, seeking evidence that, if being richer didn’t make us happy, becoming poorer won’t make us miserable. (Perhaps we can come back to that in 2014?) If you’re of a paranoid turn of mind, I’d suggest that you not read Ben Goldacre’s “Hello madam, would you like your children to be unemployed?”, which explains how sequences of questions can be loaded to give the preferred answer. Or at least the one preferred by the people asking the questions. As the old joke goes, 76% of statistics are made up on the spot, and the other 42% are deliberate deceptions.

Governments, of course, aren’t organisations (although that difference will be of little comfort to a great many public sector employees in the months ahead). QoWL Ltd., a spinout company of the University of Portsmouth, provides Quality or Working Life Surveys. Theirwebsite includes an interesting page, “What employers fear”, which points out:

Most employers who have not recently conducted a staff survey are afraid of doing so as they are unsure whether they will get a positive response from employees. In our experience most employees of an organisation are generally satisfied with their jobs, as most people who are unhappy with their jobs over time will leave.”

This reads a little oddly in current circumstances, where some previously satisfied staff may longer be at their desks less voluntarily. As Lord Young has discovered, this is a time for caution in publicly expressing the belief that some of us are prospering. Looking at the CIPD Employee Outlook: Year Review July 2010 reveals some negative trends:

  • Overall job satisfaction declined during the course of 2009, with the largest fall occurring between summer and autumn
  • There was a decrease in perceived organisational support for work–life balance
  • In spring, only 8% of public sector staff stated that they felt likely or very likely to lose their job. By winter this figure had almost doubled
  • In spring 2009, 39% of UK employees wanting to change jobs were very optimistic or optimistic about being able to. This figure dropped significantly to 33% by winter.

The overall impression is of a working nation that is bearing it, but not necessarily grinning quite as often as they used to. The importance of involvement from above, and of asking the right questions, is underlined by three other findings that give a clearer picture of a way forward where problems exist:

  • Employees who are satisfied with their job are consistently more likely to state that their manager always or usually consults them than those who are dissatisfied with their job. The more a manager consults with their staff, the greater the resulting level of job satisfaction.
  • The largest driving factors of job satisfaction relate to providing employees with opportunities to feed views upwards and making them feel that their work counts.
  • The number of employees who feel their manager is always or usually open and honest has decreased significantly since spring 2009.

As well as underlining the importance of engagement (surely the HR topic of 2010?), the last point suggests something subtly different: that candour is a skill that managers need to learn and deploy more often and more skilfully. We appreciate that the HR team is not the ONS, and that staff surveys have a context unique to each workplace (otherwise why bother?), but having an answer to ‘Who’s asking and why?’ up your sleeve might be a good piece of pre-preparation. (Especially if candour has been such a weak point so far that the audience actually need to ask.) Just remember that your audience will also need to trust your reasoning and your answer.

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