The stirring point for this blog is born of a curiosity toward current government proposals to measure the wellbeing of the UK. In their desire to leave behind purely economic measures of the nation’s welfare, the coalition is seeking a happiness yardstick. British Prime Minister David Cameron has been quoted as saying that a new measure of national wellbeing “could give us a general picture of whether life is improving” and eventually “lead to government policy that is more focused, not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile.” Researching citation of the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ in media and academic texts over the last 3 decades suggests an agenda that is on the rise, a conversation that is becoming more and more prevalent in social and political life.
Any critique of wellbeing finds itself in a strange position. After all, who can resist the call to happiness, in all its commonsense irrefutability and desirability? Who can resist the ‘goodness’ inherent in its goals? The philosopher Richard Rorty calls this a ‘conversation-stopper,’ as it can easily appear to be an unquestioned good for government to maximise our happiness, and this view can only gather in pace and persuasion with the backing of the ‘science’ of wellbeing (aka positive psychology) and its validation of the commonsense of happiness as a form of truth-seeking beyond question. The obviousness of the desire for happiness leaves us in thrall to its charms as a personal and political goal. But how scientific is the move to measure our wellbeing, and what is the place of government in the value-loaded questions as to what constitutes the good life? The debate as to how or whether to make wellbeing a central aspect of policy-making is vital.