Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of “subjective well-being.” If successful, these could become official statistics.
The idea of the government tallying personal feelings might seem frivolous — or impossibly difficult. For decades, after all, the world has gotten by with gauging a nation’s quality of life on the basis of its GDP, or gross domestic product, the sum of its economic output.
But economists and others have long recognized that GDP, a dollars and cents measure, doesn’t count everything that might be considered important when assessing living conditions.
“Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage . . .it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile,” Robert Kennedy said in a 1968 speech.
But as the United States ventures into the squishy realm of feelings, statisticians will first have to define happiness and then how to measure it. Neither is a trivial matter. There is even some doubt whether people, when polled, can accurately say whether they are happy.
“I’m worried about the word ‘happiness’,” Kahneman, an author and psychologist, said during a break in a meeting last week.
Whatever the obstacles, the effort has momentum. President Obama has “welcomed” the effort, according to a White House release, and his chief economic adviser, Alan Krueger, is one of the leading researchers in the field.
Before being named chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, Krueger co-wrote one of the key papers on the topic. In it, Krueger and his co-authors proposed a method for generating a national statistic covering “the flow of emotional experience during daily activities.”
The panel, organized by the nonprofit National Academies, has already met with two of the key figures in the U.S. statistical bureaucracy:Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Steve Landefeld, the director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the federal agency that puts out the gross domestic product figures.
According to proponents, a measure of happiness could help assess the success or failure of a range of government policies. It could gauge the virtues of a health benefit or establish whether education has more value than simply higher incomes. It might also detect extremes of inequality or imbalances in how people divide their time between work and leisure.
“The phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ is in the Declaration of Independence, so it’s not a huge stretch to say we might want to measure life satisfaction,” said panel member Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of a book on the topic.