Saturday, March 26, 2011

Happy? Statisticians Aren't Buying It

by Carl Bialik

Wall Sreet Journal
March 26, 2011

Governments, academics and pollsters are hot on the trail of happiness.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an initiative to measure the national mood in a way that isn't captured by traditional economic statistics. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German legislators are looking into similar programs. U.S. government researchers and Gallup pollsters are asking hundreds of thousands of Americans each year how satisfied they are with their lives.

But statisticians' efforts to measure happiness are ridden with uncertainty. Around the world, people tend to describe themselves as happy even when they express many specific complaints and doubts about their lives or their government. Some economists say that even if a reliable happiness test could be devised, it would be risky to craft policy based on a broad metric. Instead, they say, happiness is more reliably reflected in things that are objectively measured, such as income, health and living conditions.

Simon Chapple, senior economist with the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development's social-policy division, has doubts about whether it is possible to measure how happiness is influenced by public policy. "This is an academic field in an enormous state of flux," Dr. Chapple says. "Controversy is still out there."

But other economists see little downside in the efforts. Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics, is an advocate of trying to track happiness as "a basic measure of the progress of a society." Its subjectivity isn't a problem, in his view: "The most important things in life are subjective."


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