Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The science and politics of happiness and wellbeing

The science and politics of happiness and wellbeing
Submitted by Dr Sridhar Venkatapuram, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in ethics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Earlier this year, I was awarded a Wellcome Trust fellowship at POST, the Parliament Office of Science and Technology. This office produces briefing papers and reports on cutting edge scientific issues for both the House of Commons and Lords. For a little over four months, I worked on a briefing paper titled ‘Measuring National Wellbeing’, which was published today.
If you are from the UK, you may recognise this as having to do with the press coverage of David Cameron’s happiness agenda. Or, you may have heard of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index. But there is much more to the story – after all, what does happiness have to do with science?

The answer is this. Traditionally. public health researchers focus mainly on the causes, effects, prevention and treatment of ill health. Starting in the 1970s, however, a small group of researchers began exploring ‘positive health’. They hypothesized that the causes and components of health and wellbeing lay not just in the absence of illness.

Initially thought to be somewhat eccentric, this subject is now getting much more attention in both academic and policy circles, with Nobel prizewinning Princeton academic Daniel Kahneman a major advocate of this field of research.

Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines in November 2010 by announcing that the Office for National Statistics would begin measuring the national wellbeing of the United Kingdom.

(Some inspiration for this came from work by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, created by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.)
The UK ONS is taking a global lead in measuring national wellbeing by, among other things, measuring ‘subjective wellbeing’. The POST paper discusses what this is and what is involved in this process.

The most interesting thing about my work at POST was learning how policy makers engage with the latest scientific information. I have always taught that science and health is political, and this experience has just reinforced to me how true that is. So keep an eye on the news about national wellbeing and happiness – it’s an idea and a science that is spreading across the world.

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