Category Archives: David Cameron

Update on British government measurement of happiness [UPDATED 7/24/12]

Dancing in Bankside London-Flickr photo by ChrisJL

I reported earlier on the British government’s recent foray into measuring the happiness of its citizens.

Cameron charged their Office of National Statistics (their equivalent of the Census Bureau) with asking respondents to rate themselves on a 1-10 scale on the following items:

  • How happy did you feel yesterday?
  • How anxious did you feel yesterday?
  • How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

The first results of the Measuring National Wellbeing Programme (MNWP) or “Wellbeing Index” were released on July 24, 2012.

Among their results, they found that: 16-19 year olds and 65-79 year olds were the most happy Brits as were married Brits, the Indians and folks living on Orkney, or the Western or Shetland Islands.

Roger Cohen reports that Andrew Oswald, a well-respected economics researcher on happiness at Warwick believes this is “a good start, although he would have added, ‘How well have you been sleeping?’ — an important mental health indicator — and ‘How pressurized do you feel your time is?’  The important thing, he argues, it to shift ‘from the concept of financial prosperity to the idea of emotional prosperity.’ Perhaps that’s the 21st-century indicator we need: gross emotional prosperity, or G.E.P.”

Roger Cohen’s own views of the happiness initiative: “So I’m ready to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt and even give a wary nod to his related “Big Society” project, also the source of much guffawing. The essence of this idea is that people can give more to one another — British A.T.M.s, for example, would automatically give customers an option of donating to charity. It’s a tough sell in a grim economy, but it captures a need among dislocated people to connect more.

“That’s also true in the United States. Liberty is an inalienable right of Americans, along with the pursuit of happiness. Note the distinction here, evidence of the wisdom of the founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom but, when it comes to happiness, only the quest for it is underwritten. Still, perhaps it’s time to measure just how that quest is going.”

See, “The Happynomics of Life” (NY Times column by Roger Cohen, 3/14/2011).

Happiness: how to increase it, UK Government measurement

Flickr photo by greeneydmantis

Two interesting updates on happiness research:

1) Being in the present increases your happiness.  A somewhat surprising finding since  one would think that daydreaming about a Tahitian vacation, a Carlton Fisk’s memorable 1975 world series home run for the Red Sox, or recalling something hilarious one’s children said, would increase your happiness.  But social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth (both from Harvard) found, using an iPod app called trackyourhappiness, that the Buddhists were indeed right.  Dwell in the present and be mindful.  Trackyourhappiness beeped 2,200 volunteer subjects at various times of the day and asked them describe what they were doing, with whom, and how happy they were.  The researchers analyzed the quarter of a million datapoints to determine what activities provided the greatest or least happiness.


When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being ”very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time….

”I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there,” Dr. Gilbert says.

Of course, it might well be that the mind wanders because the underlying activities are less “scintillating”; it’s hard to say whether being in the present for commuting or grooming would dramatically increase the happiness levels of doing those activities, although it might reduce traffic accidents and grooming accidents…

See “When The Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays” (NY Times, 11/16/10, by John Tierney)

See here for a recent summary post on happiness research.

2) The British government has followed up on Prime Minister David Cameron’s interest in wellbeing and will begin measurement this year.  The UK government follows countries like Bhutan and Canada in regularly measuring this concept. France has also been recommended to take similar action from a high-powered academic commission advising French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Sarkozy announced in 2009 that he plans to measure happiness and wellbeing as part of France’s economic progress in the near future.

A Guardian piece notes that there is some ” ‘nervousness’… in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week’s riot in Westminster…”  Cameron has indicated that tracking wellbeing is as important as ever during a downturn, and his commitment to integrate wellbeing centrally into government policy.

The government is charging the national statistician Jil Matheson with crafting the exact happiness questions to add to the Office of National Statistics’ ongoing household survey. Cameron has asked for regular measurement of “subjective wellbeing” (including happiness) and how well Brits are meeting their “life goals”.

The new data, to begin being measured in Spring 2011, may be published quarterly like British crime data, and will be coupled with other social measures like social capital to provide data on Brits’ quality of life.

John Helliwell “told the Guardian: ‘The UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report: systematically measuring subjective wellbeing as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices.’  ”

See “Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood: Despite ‘nervousness’, David Cameron wants measure of wellbeing to steer government policy” (Guardian, Nov. 14, 2010, by Allegra Stratton)

See David Cameron’s November 25, 2010 transcript regarding UK measurement of wellbeing.

See how UK ranks to other countries in happiness

Datablog: see how our happiness rating compares

Firefighting and social capital

Flickr photo by Dawn M Armfield

Bob (Putnam) and I met with Steve McGirk Monday morning in Manchester, England.  Steve is the thoughtful and engaging Chief Fire Officer for the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

He discussed the evolution of firefighting in the UK (and elsewhere) and how prevention and social capital has come to be at the heart of what he does.  It’s a concept that one wouldn’t have thought about initially, but makes a world of sense after you hear it.

The heavy local concentration of fire stations originated in Britain during the Second World War.  England was under the blitz (from Germany) and tall buildings were being firebombed in Birmingham, Manchester, or elsewhere; without many fire stations close to all these tall buildings in order to respond rapidly, buildings would burn, igniting neighboring ones and soon consume huge resources and countless lives.  Fire stations were located based on perceived “peak” demand and thus most of the time, fire station personnel were not used very heavily.

Since then, there has been a sea change in fire response.  It’s very hard politically to get rid of any fire stations, but the stations and the firefighters have been put to new uses.  Through the use of smoke alarms (sometimes provided and installed free) and firemen knocking door-to-door and helping residents understand in advance what might cause fire risks, the numbers of fire responses, firefighting deaths, etc. is back to levels not seen since the 1950s, despite a dramatically larger population.  Steve, as do all firefighting CEOs in UK, has a statutory obligation to make fire prevention be at the heart of what they do.  Steve says that we have “come to understand in recent years that fires are not random, but more typically are the outcome of social and economic factors” – it is lifestyle and behavior that are at the roots of most blazes.

It was also interesting but morbid to hear Steve relate that the much more prevalent use of man-made materials in buildings has caused fires to reach scorching heats much faster than fires consuming natural materials.  Steve said that man-made materials typically reach 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in 5-6 minutes.  Unless firefighters can reach fires in 2-3 minutes, the fires are often fatal.  Since it is not practical to have enough fire stations to ensure this response time, it has similarly put pressure on fire stations to focus as much on prevention as on firefighting.

They have also repurposed some of the stations. Steve related the very interesting story of an unused old carriage house behind a Moss Side fire station being turned into a boxing ring, staffed by the firefighters.  “I’m not sure exactly where the money came from.  I don’t want to ask too many questions”, Steve says with a wink.  The boxing ring and the fire station efforts are a rare neutral ground for the local gangs.  A youth involved in a recent Moss Side shooting was sentenced to 2.5 years in the gym, and is now a strong prospect for the 2016 UK Boxing Olympic team.  Similarly, it’s hard to get some youth to do Boy Scouts in the UK because it’s seen as nerdy, but being a Fire Corps Cadet, which preaches many of the same values, is cool.

Steve notes that culturally, this change has not always been easy.  Some of the older firefighters joined to be macho and fight fires, and getting them out knocking on doors and talking with residents about fire safety has taken some active prodding and required him to be hard-nosed:  he’s told firefighters that if they don’t adapt to the new culture, their jobs are on the line.

One can see how such a community-based approach, which originated with “community policing”, has now started to spread to firefighting.  Steve believes that in the UK’s tight budget environment, Emergency Response needs to be the next frontier for this community-centric approach.  [Specific cuts are likely to emerge in the next month from David Cameron’s overall targets announced early this summer.] Emergency Response costs (ambulance and the like) have soared in recent years, and he thinks that if this were merged together with firefighting, they could similarly dramatically reduce the need for Emergency Response through an “ounce of prevention”.  Not all of his fire stations now have boxing clubs but they are increasingly spreading such clubs or finding other ways to bring the community into firestations.