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What can twenty years of the Human Development Report teach David Cameron about making people happy?

Written by Claire Melamed


Despite the gloom of spending cuts and darkness at 4pm, happiness is suddenly fashionable in the UK again.  This has nothing to do with the recently announced royal engagement (though one hopes that this has increased the number of happy people in the country by two, at least).  Rather, it is Prime Minister David Cameron who wants to know if people are happy, and who proposes to use this information to help him make decisions. 

He’s not the first.  Two hundred years ago Jeremy Bentham expressed this idea rather more pithily when he claimed that: ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation’.  And twenty years ago, the United Nations’ Human Development Report (HDR), was one of the first efforts to put a number on happiness and rank countries accordingly. 

This might be overstating the case a little.  The HDR was a modest foray into the field of happiness – adding information about health and education to the more commonly used income measures to quantify the progress of nations.  And it has always preferred the less loaded term ‘well-being’, or its own ‘human development’, to the more ambitious term ‘happiness’.  But there’s a clear line of descent from the HDR to the other, more ambitious methods for measuring happiness or well-being that have proliferated in recent years. The HDR also has the benefit of longevity – this year is its twentieth anniversary. 

So what can twenty years of the Human Development Report teach David Cameron about how to go about making people happy?  A few things stand out. 

  • Happiness might not have much to do with economic growth.  The Human Development Report says the relationship between the rate of economic growth in a country and improvements in how long people live or how educated they are is ‘surprisingly weak’.  Music to the ears of a government facing slow growth and fears of a ‘double dip’ recession perhaps, but it puts a heavy burden on governments to make the right choices.  If it’s not growth alone that can make people healthier or better educated, then the next place to look is government policy.  And the evidence in the HDR shows just how important government action is when it comes to explaining why people are healthy, or well educated, or just, well, happy. 
  • Inequality matters.  It’s kind of obvious, but more unequal countries scored lower on human development indicators.  And as inequalities are reduced and poorer and more excluded groups are brought into health and education systems, then human development – read happiness – increases.  Rather worryingly for a government planning big spending cuts, public spending is proposed by the HDR as the best way of reducing inequality.  It may all sound very 1970s, but taxing the rich and spending on the poor might actually be the route to happiness.
  • The ‘big society’ goes to market.  Of course, any survey of human development around the world finds a huge variety of ways of organising economic, social and political life that are all compatible with human development.  But one thing seems to hold true across all of them –rather than setting society and markets in opposition to each other, or making the mistake of thinking that they operate in separate spheres, markets must be regulated to conform to the rules and values of society.  It is those markets that are well regulated by an effective state and an active – maybe even a ‘big’ – society, that seem to deliver most happiness.

Every government should be pursuing our happiness. That’s what we elect them for.  David  Cameron should be applauded for recognising this and trying to act on it.  But will he have the courage to carry the happiness idea wherever it takes him – even if it’s in unexpected directions?