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Nic Marks

Director, Happiness Works

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Should Governments start to measure what really matters to people - their happiness? Or should they stay out of such a private matter?

David Cameron, UK prime minister, has recently announced that the UK will create a new indicator of National Well-being. He said as much in his TED talk last year and now he is walking his TED talk! This is something we have argued for at new economics foundation for some time - and I also lay out my thoughts in my recent TED book - The Happiness Manifesto. But are we right? Is this a valid aim of government? Or should government just simply stay out of such a private realm? Indeed can government stay out of this realm? Fo example unemployment makes people unhappy but does inflation? Should a government therefore concentrate more on security of jobs than controlling the money supply? What about education - should kids be educated to fulfil labour market requirements or to lead fulfilling lives? So many areas that Governments touch our lives - the economy, the financial markets, health services, schools, local engagement and the built environment. How could they be different - nay better?
DISCUSS ... I would love to know TEDsters views!

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    Feb 16 2011: This is something I've recently had a change of mind. Not quite change as much as blurring of mind.
    No doubt that happiness is an important experience to have in life. But the more I thought about happiness as Guiding Principle the more it seems trivial.
    I take the example of my country, Brasil. What if we took happiness as the most important measure of the economy. Well, certainly the government would start shifting (or increasing) investments into Carnaval, soccer matches, subsidizing prostitutes, beer and caipirinhas. The happiness index would skyrocket, and most of the people would indeed be more happy, but is that what we should be striving for?

    As I said before, I have no current stance on this and as much as I agree that individual human well-being should be at the forefront of collective decision making, happiness strikes me as a very superfluous value. Not only that, but most of the things that we decided to be a part of our lives, because they makes us happy, were started by events that brought us "poor-being", discomfort or even physical and psychological pain. How could you tell if certain occurrences of "poor-being" won't turn into major well-being factors in the near of far future?

    I remember the dread of learning some things in high-school that caused anger (not well being), but I'm very glad I did, cause it gave me the basis to love learning now. Similarly we could imagine that going to the dentist and fixing your cavities will bring you a lot of suffering, pain and discomfort. But the good that comes from that is, most of the time, worth the suffering. Emotional development works the same, it may be awful to go through some things growing up, like love break ups, friend betrayal or death of close ones, but all these "bad" emotional experiences make us grow and eventually (more often than not I hope) learn to be more balanced and have long standing well-being.

    Perhaps happiness and well-being can't be achieved without suffering.
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      Feb 16 2011: But this problem is no different than the problems that politicians face with determining the economic guidelines and policies. If it was left for the society to decide, surely everyone would increase their wages, unemployment benefits, make education, healthcare free, etc. It's the task of politicians and policy-makers to foresee possible future implications of such actions and choose the ones that will serve people the best in the long-term. Quite similar principle can be applied to happiness.
    • Feb 16 2011: I think the definition of happiness is at question here. In Bhutan, where this concept seems to have originated, the predominant religion is Buddhism and I believe they would see happiness as something closer to "contentedness" or "satisfaction with life" than the temporary pleasure of soccer matches. That "satisfaction" comes from everything in our experience and suffering is a part of understanding that experience.

      The types of choices the government has to make wouldn't change - only the measure of success. Gross National Happiness as opposed to Gross National Product.
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      Feb 17 2011: Agreed. Replace "happiness" => "well-being"
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        Feb 17 2011: Agree. "Well-being" seems easier to define than "happiness":>)

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