Monday, 30 July 2012

Is there such a thing as the 'quality of life'?



News that the Government's new Index of Well-Being reveals a people fairly happy with their lot, but more optimistic and happier in some places than others, does not come as a vast shock to anyone who's been following these things for more than a nano-second.

Are we really a nation in retreat? Or a 'broken society'? Er, no. Three-quarters of people report that they feel, well, okay most of the time, thank you very much, and by the way, would you like a nice cup of tea?

Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and Aberdeenshire are the happiest placse to live - counter-intuitive results for quite dark (and not particularly wealthy) parts of the UK that wouldn't rate very highly on most southerners' lists of desirable places to live compared to - say - Marbella. But remember: these people feel like places where community still matters. Rampant inequality is alien to them - unlike, for instance, most of London and the South East. The great outdoors is on their doorstep. People have a sense of space, as well as a sense of place. Romantic nonsense? Well, the stats say no - people there really do have a more acute sense of well-being than elsewhere in the UK. And lots of studies say the same thing. Sunshine? Wealth? Bright lights and the big city? Well, this emergent social science says: you can keep them.

There are, of course, objectors to this sort of thing. One type of glumster basically says: 'leave us alone. This type of thing assumes that happiness equals the public good. Why can't we be glum? Why does the state have any right to inquire about this in any case? We should be free to be gloomy'.

Another grounds for carping is the Daily Mail's usual why-oh-why-oh-why barrage of stereotypes: 'this will encourage politicians to think they can do something about this. Better to leave all this unmeasured, than to open the door to Whitehall and Westminster interference in our inner lives'.

But you should ignore the doubters. Knowing more - understanding the emerging science (or pseudo-science, or anti-science) of happiness has to be a good thing. You can have a closer look at the academic basis for all this here, on the Office for National Statistics website, if you'd like. Some people don't want you inquiring into new ideas about well-being versus income, inequality, growth and employment. They want you to remain in the dark. Don't let them stop you - or the ONS - investigating. 

Citizens, voters and experts are talking more and more about the quality of life: about the right to die when it is felt that your loved ones' lives fall below an acceptable standard, for instance. About the link between happiness and years spent in formal education systems that are supposed to unleash your personality and talent, but can feel constricting and instrumental (er, there's no link at all, as it happens). Political scientists have show recently that 'irrational' and unrelated events (for instance sporting success) can affect poll ratings. Labour certainly thought that England's ejection from the 1970 World Cup harmed their chances in the General Election held just a few days later. Academic debate has raged for decades about the so-called 'Easterlin paradox' - that above a certain level, countries getting richer do not get happier. Now you can see that playing out, here and now. Now that's being given life, and it's taking on flesh. That might be why the doomsters don't like it.

So the answer to the question, 'is there such a thing as the "quality of life"?' is: yes there is.

But its mechanisms? How it works? Well, we're only just starting to unravel those, but we're getting somewhere, and these numbers will help.

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