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The search for happiness in our society

The way ahead runs on happiness.

Professor Andrew Oswald, Department of Economics, Warwick

For over two decades my colleagues and I have been working to calculate the societal benefits of increased wellbeing, or, in essence, happiness. A simple emotional state characterised by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfilment, but also one that is complex, and often elusive.

If there is a more important issue than which factors determine happiness, both within every person, or collectively across a nation, it is hard for me to think what that might be.

When I first discovered there were large data sets that measured people’s feelings of happiness, almost untouched by anybody, I felt a natural urge to look and see if any patterns were visible within this emotional enigma. That was in 1992, and I have not looked back since.

I have dedicated myself to this subject, specifically looking at how important economics were to people, and how potentially we could improve happiness in modern society.

Prior to our research, the primary method for measuring societal progress and economic growth was through Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measurement of the size and health of a country's economy over a period using metrics such as business investment, government spending, and net exports. However, I argued that new metrics were needed to track wellbeing and its link to productivity and economic growth, including happiness as a measurement.

When I first begun my research into this area, I faced some hostility and indifference from economists and others who were critical of the ‘unconventional’ approach.

Not only this, but I also had to overcome numerous technical problems during those early stages. Using large data bases and statistical techniques were much more difficult back then – some computer programmes took all night, while others would shut off after certain hours.

We overcame these challenges, with the constant support and encouragement from the University of Warwick, and over more than two decades I am extremely proud of what we have achieved.

Despite early scepticism of my approach, it has now been widely accepted that wellbeing is an important indicator of a country’s progress. Me and my colleagues have developed measures of wellbeing and ventured into the unknown, exploring how happiness is determined by personal circumstances and economic factors.

The results have been astounding; we have found that levels of wellbeing are affected by factors relating to physical health, discovered that happiness fundamentally affects economic outcomes, proven that people are happier when inflation and unemployment are low, and even that getting married equates to the same amount of happiness, on average, as having an extra £70,000 of income per year.

As a result of our research, we have been able to make a real difference in our society. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) now collects data on key wellbeing indicators, and I have personally provided advice to the National Infrastructure Commission on how infrastructure, especially transport, affects wellbeing in the UK.

The Green Book – the Civil Service’s guide to all decisions on public spending – now incorporates our research and Aberdeen City Council has introduced practical steps to improve wellbeing, including training mental health first aiders, running ‘Mental Health Weeks’, and providing yoga and mindfulness sessions.

This is only at the surface level. Beyond this our findings have been cited in numerous policy documents by a wide range of organisations including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, the Department for Work and Pensions, Public Health England, the Scottish Government, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

This is what were most proud of, the real-world impact. This is what is vital to any research and has driven us all along the way, despite criticism and numerous challenges. The University of Warwick recognised the value and difference our research could make, even when we were exploring often experimental or abstract approaches, they provided the platform for us to progress.

Though, we are not finished. This is just the beginning, and I am eager to see our research and findings built upon in years to come.

The reason this is so important? Happiness is fundamental, let’s all agree.


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