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An index of happiness is at least a worthwhile endeavour

26 Nov 2010 | Independent

It is easy to mock the notion. There is something of a silly frivolity bound up in the word happy.

It was the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham who first popularised the notion that politics ought to aim at promoting "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". The problem his followers hit upon was working out a way to measure something as subjective as the feeling of what it is to be happy - and how to weigh the happiness of different sections of society against one another in the trade-off that is modern politics.

Even so, the notion of an index of well-being has tempted politicians ever since. The last to try it in Britain was Tony Blair who held "life satisfaction" seminars and commissioned various studies before concluding that happiness changed shape like mercury and slipped through the fingers. More recently, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, asked two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to come up with a way to measure well-being. Now David Cameron has asked the Office for National Statistics to do the same.

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