Measuring and dating happiness

Moreover, economists believe that the pursuit of public happiness as a policy goal has merit even when the economy is booming.This is because, as their data have become more comprehensive and sophisticated, they have noticed one apparent paradox: that despite a substantial increase in GDP in the industrialised West, the levels of human contentment have remained static.

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If a government pursues policies aimed at spending more on public services, producing income equality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, then it will obtain high scores against the benchmarks and targets it has set for itself.

Yet it might enhance a country’s well-being if the government taxed less, spent less and did less.

Two years ago, Mr Sarkozy went so far as to commission Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economists, to consider how a sense of national happiness might be captured.

They proposed replacing GDP with a broader measure based on something called net national product (NNP), which takes account not just of annual growth but the value, and depreciation, of all of a nation’s human and physical resources.

For many of us happiness is spiritual, individual, difficult to define and ephemeral.

A Buddhist monk with no possessions beyond his clothes and an alms bowl might consider himself happier than a City financier with homes on three continents.

Questions such as “How much purpose does your life have?

” may be the stock in trade of psychiatrists and priests but are dangerous for politicians because the answers are so unpredictable.

Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.” He added: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general well-being.” Of course, there were many who felt it was easy for the millionaire Tory leader to diminish the importance of money when he has plenty of it.

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