Belfast Telegraph

If you're happy and you know it, don't thank GDP

Output is meaningless as an index of individual well-being. The Executive needs a better yardstick to measure happiness, says Robin Wilson

It's easy to deride new statistics suggesting that, on average, most people are quite happy with their lot. Particularly as the figures coincided with news that the UK's conventional economic measure of gross domestic product continues to drop through the floor.

But they are very interesting - and it turns out that we in Northern Ireland are among the happiest of all, in spite of regional GDP at about four-fifths of the UK average.

For many years, environmentalists and psychologists have been arguing that GDP is a meaningless measure of individuals' well-being.

The pursuit of endless economic growth is burning the planet and, above a subsistence income, it makes little difference to one's well-being whether one lives in a rich or poor country.

But aren't we always complaining? About the weather, bigots, paramilitaries, politicians, the weather? Well, yes, but what makes people feel content in life is largely the quality of their social relationships.

Human beings suffer from what social scientists call 'evaluation anxiety': we always have half an eye to what other people think of us.

And particularly if we are very conscious of our economic status - trying to 'keep up with the Joneses' - we can put ourselves on a treadmill of working to accumulate stuff which never leaves us satisfied.

But if we are surrounded by supportive family, friends and neighbours, we feel more self-assured. Engaging in voluntary activity adds to our social networks and a sense of self-fulfilment.

We're quite good at that in Northern Ireland. Most of us have a disregard for too much social climbing, in favour of spending time with those to whom we feel close.

Our voluntary sector is vibrant, with thousands of organisations working to address everything from supporting people with disabilities to coaching kids in sport.

Which all makes it so odd that our devolved government has such a different focus. Its Programme for Government says the economy is the priority and it understands that in the conventional terms of increasing GDP.

Yet, contrary to Bill Clinton's famous slogan, it's the society, not 'the economy, stupid' that really matters to us as individuals.

Within that, the economic emphasis should be on a better sharing of work and a better work-life balance, particularly for women.

Yes, we need more jobs. But we also need opportunities for other forms of participation - like the old Action for Community Employment scheme - for those who won't enter the commercial labour market.

And, yes, we need to raise productivity. But to work fewer hours, not to go home more stressed.

For while the new data are encouraging about well-being in Northern Ireland, the UK average is not a very high benchmark to aim at. Research by the New Economics Foundation on national accounts of well-being - a composite index which is rather more sophisticated than the Government's 'happiness' survey - shows that the UK is only a middle-ranking performer in Europe. The countries which show really high levels of well-being are the Nordics, led by Denmark.

These are countries famous for progressive taxation, funding generous universal welfare states and high levels of social equality.

And there is a dark side to the Northern Ireland story. For the happiness statistics coincide with publication of research on suicide here which paints a grimmer picture of a phenomenon on the rise.

The arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street in 1979 saw a gulf of inequality open up, as taxes on the rich were slashed along with welfare entitlements.

Suicide, addiction to alcohol and other drugs and other indicators of a lack of well-being are all-too prevalent among those closest to the bottom of our stretched social scale.

Until the Government at Stormont comes up with a serious social - and not just economic - policy, that is how things will remain.

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