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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 17 2011: My assumption (and please let me know if I'm wrong--it's how I learn new stuff) is that a government would want to measure something in order to control or "improve" it. I think it is impossible for any outside force to "make us happy," so an attempt to do so would ultimately be futile and thus, wasteful of limited government resources.

    I would look to our governments to create an environment in which we can pursue our individual experiences of happiness and contentedness (without hurting others), but nothing more beyond that.
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      Feb 17 2011: Bart - do you think outside forces can make you unhappy? And yes i think it would be that a government would want to improve a happiness/well-being index ... i think it would try to do so by not engaging with actions that undermine people's well-being and by creating more fertile soil for people's happiness/well-being to emerge out of - not by trying to directly make people happier ...
      • Feb 17 2011: Great question--in my personal experience, outside forces impact my happiness/unhappiness only in a transitory, temporary way. I've been happy when seriously ill and sad in the middle of some great parties.

        I suppose that at the crux of this is the big question of "how?" From a historical perspective here in the States, our government has mucked things up with astonishing reliability when trying to help things along. And if one is to agree with Cato's (the institute, not the philosopher) assessment of happiness data, freer (less government regulation) economies tend to correlate with higher happiness. Could Cameron use this proposed new metric as an argument for more conservative economic policy?

        Another question (and this gets quite heady) is this: is happiness the state of being that one should strive for? I often wrestle with that question myself. While I enjoy happiness, I find myself at my most productive when driven by a profound sense of incompleteness. Not inadequacy, but of potential unfulfilled. While not "happy" at those times, I'm certainly my most creative, engaged, and motivated.

        Good topic!
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          Feb 24 2011: If you are free to pollute the stream I live next to - upriver....I am not happy and can't really be happy about the poison which kills the plants and animals where I am..but without the state I am free to "go jump in a lake."

          (As for personal happiness I share your take which sounds like the book Flow written by a nice Czech man whose name I am not going to attempt to spell right now)

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