Well-being in public policy: Should governments worry about happiness?

(Disponible en français : Le bien-être au cœur des politiques publiques : l’État devrait-il se soucier du bonheur?)

In 2012, the United Nations (UN) recognized March 20th as the International Day of Happiness. Since then, the World Happiness Report, an index of happiness levels in different countries, has been released in anticipation of that date.

The index measures happiness using a question in the Gallup World Poll known as the Cantril ladder, which asks respondents to imagine where they would stand on a ladder numbered with steps from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top, with 10 representing their best possible life.

Although many factors contribute to a person’s sense of well-being, where one lives can be particularly important. In the 2018 World Happiness Report, Finland achieved the top spot. Canada has consistently ranked within the top 10 in this index; in 2018, it placed 7th. Other countries that regularly rank high include Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

This index is but one approach for measuring well-being. The answers provided in the self-assessment correlate with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita; life expectancy; social support; social freedom; generosity; and the absence of corruption. Other indexes are broader and consider factors such as mental health and environmental sustainability.

The Happy Planet Index incorporates a country’s ecological footprint and income inequality. According to this index, Costa Rica scored the highest in 2017, a reflection of the high percentage (99%) of its electricity being produced from renewable sources, and its high investments in education and health. Canada ranked 85th, partly due to its high greenhouse gas emissions and rising income inequality.

Research is increasingly showing a link between government policies and well-being.  The quality of government policies regarding poverty, inequality, and environmental protection is an important factor in improving a country’s well-being. In 2015, world leaders adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to promote the adoption of government policies that correlate with improving happiness and well-being.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also acknowledges that “there is more to life than the cold numbers of GDP and economic statistics”.  The organization says that public policy should be informed by statistics that reflect quality of life factors including trust, voter turnout, unemployment and environmental degradation.

Individual countries have made important advances in implementing well-being policies at national levels. In Canada, although neither passed into law, two private members’ bills in the federal House of Commons attempted to measure well-being among people, communities and ecosystems in the country.[*]

Since 2011, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, based at the University of Waterloo, has reported on the quality of life of Canadians. The index recommends that well-being become a lens for policy making at all levels of government. Canada’s 2018 Federal Budget included multiple references to well-being as part of its commitment to indigenous reconciliation, implementation of the SDGs and promoting equality.

In 2010, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics launched the Measuring National Well-being Programme, focusing on data accumulation. In January 2018, the U.K. government assigned the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society with responsibility for coordinating work related to loneliness.

There are critics of the increased attention on happiness and well-being in public policy.  The self-assessment indicators of the World Happiness Report are considered to be a subjective method of measurement. Others argue that increasing wealth beyond a specific threshold does not necessarily lead to an increase in happiness, a phenomenon known as the happiness-income paradox.  Between 1994 and 2014, Canada’s GDP increased by 38.0%, but well-being increased by only 9.9%. In Bhutan, since 1972, Gross National Happiness, rather than GDP has been the main objective of public policy. However, critics raise the government’s alleged human rights violations towards its Nepali minority to illustrate the disconnect between theory and practice.

Governments the world over are playing an increased role in promoting the happiness and well-being of their citizens. The International Day of Happiness is an opportunity to reflect on how the Government of Canada’s policies affect the happiness and well-being of Canadians today and for years to come.

John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs, World Happiness Report 2018, Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 14 March 2018.
Karen Jeffrey, Hanna Wheatley and Saamah Abdallah, The Happy Planet Index 2016, New Economics Foundation, July 2016.
The World Bank, “GDP per capita, PPP (current international $),” Data.
New Economics Foundation, “Canada,” Happy Planet Index. (Ecological Footprint)

The World Bank, “GINI index (World Bank estimate),” Data.
The World Bank, “Life expectancy at birth, total (years),” Data.
Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, 21 February 2018.

Further Reading:

Gallup, Understanding How Gallup Uses the Cantril Scale.

Mariano Rojas and Joar Vittersø, “Conceptual Referent for Happiness: Cross-Country Comparisons,” Journal of Social Research & Policy, Vol. 1, Iss. 2, 2010, pp. 103-116.

Ian Bache, Louise Reardon and Paul Anand, “Wellbeing as a Wicked Problem: Navigating the Arguments for the Role of Government,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 17, 2016, p. 896.

Nicholas Apergis, “The Impact of Greenhouse Gas Emissions on Personal Well-Being: Evidence from a Panel of 58 Countries and Aggregate and Regional Country Samples,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 19, Iss. 1, January 2018, pp. 69-80.

Jan Ott, “Impact of Size and Quality of Governments on Happiness: Financial Insecurity as a Key-Problem in Market-Democracies,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 16, Iss. 6, December 2015, pp. 1639-1647.

United Nations, International Day of Happiness 20 March.

OECD, How’s Life? 2017 Measuring Well-being Summary in English.

Ian Bache and Louise Reardon, “An Idea Whose Time has Come? Explaining the Rise of Well-Being in British Politics,” Political Studies, Vol. 61, p. 909.

Richard Easterlin et. al., The happiness-income paradox revisited,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107, No. 52, pp. 22463-22468.

Canadian Index of Wellbeing, How are Canadians really doing? The 2016 CIW Report, Canadian Index of Wellbeing and University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, 2016.

Bjørn Grinde, The Biology of Happiness, Springer, New York, 2012, p. 96.

Lorenzo Pellegrini and Luca Tasciotti, “Bhutan: Between Happiness and Horror,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2014, pp. 103-109.

[*] The Canada Well-Being Measurement Act and the Canada Genuine Progress Measurement Act, introduced in 2001 and 2013 respectively.


Author: Marie Dumont, Library of Parliament