Ross Clark

Has Brexit really made us all happier?

Has Brexit really made us all happier?
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Apparently we’re all getting a little happier – if a little more anxious. The government’s official happiness index shows that we rate our overall life satisfaction at an average of 7.7 out of 10. We think our lives are 7.9 out of 10 worthwhile. We rate our happiness yesterday at 7.5 out of 10 and our anxiety rating at 2.9 out of 10 – a slight rise on early 2015 when national anxiety reached a low but still much less than when the index started in 2011. 

Does it mean anything though? The Guardian seems to think so, publishing a story today which appears to hint that people in England are happier because they voted for Brexit and got it, while people in Scotland and Northern Ireland have failed to become happier, having seen their wishes of staying in the EU thwarted.

Do leave it out. The only conclusion I can draw from today’s happiness index is that it means absolutely nothing. The index was the brainchild of David Cameron who introduced it as one of the commitments in his 2010 manifesto. No prizes for guessing why a Prime Minister in the depths of an economic slump might decide that the government ought to collect data on something other than economics. Never mind your shrinking wage packet, he was saying, just think about the trees, the birds and the warm embrace of your friends and family.

What exactly is a happiness rating? It sounds like something from a game of Top Trumps – some spurious measure dreamed up to make sure that a bad card can always in some way trump a better card. It is just an arbitrary, subjective figure which means nothing – even to the people who are being asked for the data. I should know, because my own happiness is incorporated into these figures. For the past year I have been rung up once every three months by an eager researcher from the Office of National Statistics asking exactly this information. I find it hard enough to answer questions on things which can be measured – like the number of hours I worked last week – but which I haven’t necessarily been measuring. But when it comes to being asked about my happiness, this is pretty much what goes through my mind: how much bloody longer is this going to take? I was happy until you rung me. Do I feel my life is worthwhile? I’m sure it is more worthwhile than I think your job is. Am I anxious? I am now, because I’ve got piles of other things to do and you are stopping me.

In other words, I pluck the first figure that comes into my head in the hope of getting the guy off the phone more quickly. But then my answer gets aggregated with hundreds of others, averaged to the first decimal place, analysed by demographers and used by the Guardian for its latest pseudo-scientific sideswipe at Brexit. Really, I would be happier if we could get back to judging national performance according to plain old GDP.