There was a moment when it seemed that happiness might change British politics. Under Tony Blair, in 2002, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit held seminars exploring the concept of gross national happiness (GNH). Then, in 2006, on a BBC programme called The Happiness Formula, the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, talked of putting not just money in people's pockets, but "joy in people's hearts". He continued, in a speech at Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006, that "it's time we focused not on GDP but on GWB - general well-being". Felicific calculus seemed close to getting a page in the chancellor's Red Book.
That was before the age of austerity, though the science of happiness is having a better time during the downturn than you might presume. In the past week, the government has returned to Cameron's earlier theme with its intention to gauge the nation's happiness via questions on the household survey. This follows the French government's commission on economic performance and social progress, chaired by the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. After the commission published its report in September 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy requested that standardised surveys should now include measures for well-being. Then, in May this year, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave a speech on the subject in which he said: "Economists researching happiness and life satisfaction have found that both inflation and unemployment detract from happiness." And this month's UN Development Programme report, The Real Wealth of Nations, noted that happiness is a useful complement to other measures of well-being. (The UK came 26th on the "happiness list" - above Portugal but below 17 other European states.)
This science of happiness is championed by the "new utilitarians". They take a lead from the philosopher and political radical Jeremy Bentham, who argued that one rule can be used to judge whether an action is good or bad: the increase of pleasure and decrease of pain, or "principle of utility". Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate, has developed a measure that he calls "objective happiness": "a moment-based conception of an aspect of human well-being", as he defines it in The Psychology of Economic Decisions. Roughly, it is a summation of the feelings that an individual has across a period of time - of pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow, satisfaction or dissatisfaction. However, it is readily critiqued.
The toe test
Aggregating happiness in this way requires a "neutral point" against which the report of a feeling can be assessed. If an experience feels above that neutral point, it is deemed pleasurable and good; if below, bad. But do pleasure and pain work like that? Daniel Read of Durham University provides a counter-example. Imagine running a bath, he says. It may be too hot or too cold. So we dip in a toe to check that the temperature is right. However, that midpoint between too hot and too cold is not neutral: it is optimal. Moreover, once in, you may decide to stay put even when the water becomes cold, because the book you are reading is so good.
This points to another set of problems. Your assessment of the moment will depend on a whole range of factors that, experimentally, are very hard to screen out. Then you can add in another difficulty, concerning whether one person's pleasure can be compared with another's. There are some who hate having baths and will shower every time.
All in all, while the science talks of "objective happiness", there is no Geiger counter for felicity. That these difficulties are hard to circumvent helps explain why, to date, so many of the results of the science seem relatively obvious - at least to non-economists. We are informed that money makes you happy but only up to a point - the so-called Easterlin paradox (rises in income above a minimal level don't generate corresponding rises in happiness); or that being grateful for things generates happiness.
In his book The Happiness Equation, the behavioural economist Nick Powdthavee reports telling his grandmother about the insights of his work. "Tell me something I didn't already know," she replied. Similarly, while Bernanke's speech was weighted with scientific results, his conclusion was humdrum. "Ultimately, life satisfaction requires more than just happiness," he said. "Sometimes, difficult choices can open the doors to future opportunities, and the short-run pain can be worth the long-run gain."
Nonetheless, there is a growing body of data (indicators such as people's mental well-being) that suggests happiness is declining. "Things are not going completely well in western society," Andrew Oswald, professor of behavioural science at Warwick University, told me, citing an article he wrote jointly with Stephen Wu of Hamilton College, New York, published in Science this year. What is not clear is what to do about it. Oswald was a member of the Sarkozy commission and looked hard at interventions that governments might make. Various solutions have been proposed, from cleaner air to sharp tax increases. But Oswald remains cautious: "The economics of happiness is still too new. We don't know the right policy measures."
Too many questions
There is a deeper question to ask, too. The science will continue to gather data showing that GDP as the sole measure of well-being does not serve us well. It will highlight what many sense: that a consumer culture, for all its freedoms, does not necessarily produce satisfied citizens. But can the science tell us what to do?
There is a personal and a political element to this. At a personal level, the direct pursuit of happiness is arguably counterproductive. John Stuart Mill, Bentham's godson and protégé, came to believe that the measuring process could be self-defeating. "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so,' he wrote in his Autobiography. Forget happiness, he implies, for only then might you "inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without . . . putting it to flight by fatal questioning".
Then there is the political question. The science is immature but perhaps it will never be up to telling governments what to do. John Maynard Keynes, another thinker on well-being, suggested as much. He wondered whether happiness is a good subject for economists, pointing out that human beings' fundamental problems are not economic. They are those “of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion", he wrote in his essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren".
We, his grandchildren, have reached the point where our immediate physical needs are mostly well met, in the west at least. The challenge, Keynes wrote, is not to accumulate more, but to live wisely, agreeably and well. Only this "art of living" has become strange to us, because "we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy". The government says it is getting serious about our happiness. But as it implements its austerity measures, it hardly seems likely to advise us to stop striving and start enjoying.
Mark Vernon is the author of "The Good Life" (Hodder, £12.99)
Sense of satisfaction
There are few surprises in the section of the recent UN Development Programme report that ranks the world's nations according to their "perceptions of individual well-being and happiness". Norway tops the list, followed by the massed ranks of the world's most developed nations, including Australia, the US, Canada, Germany and Japan.
At 26, the UK is the lowest-ranked G8 nation apart from Russia, and is beaten by countries as far apart as Ireland (in fifth place) and South Korea (12th). Further down the list, Iran comes in at number 70, Afghanistan at 155, and Zimbabwe brings up the rear.
The methodology comes from the Gallup World Poll, conducted between 2006 and 2009. This survey seeks to measure an individual's "overall satisfaction" with life. Respondents were asked: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" Their evaluation was then given a score between zero and ten. People were also asked for a "daily experience" score.
Although the validity and accuracy of these measurements can be questioned, experts point to a "robust correlation" between these self-assessments and more "objective" measures of happiness, such as sociability, heart rate and electrical activity in the brain.