Starting in April, Britain’s Office for National Statistics will begin asking subjects the following questions: How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile? People will be asked to respond on a scale of one to ten.
As Roger Cohen notes in The New York Times, “now that most people have enough -- or far more than enough by the standards of human history”-- it’s time to start measuring “what’s going on inside their heads.” It’s an interesting idea, because research indicates the truth of that old saw, “money can’t buy happiness.”
I’ll be intrigued to see what policy prescriptions the British government comes up with if it finds people are not happy enough. Will it urge them to go out and smell the roses, get more sleep or get a dog?
If people refuse to do these things, will the government force them to -- for their own good? I’m reminded of the phrase commonly photocopied and placed on office bulletin boards: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Humor aside, I think the Brits are onto something. Life is indeed much more than a sum total of the economic data we look at every month.
Even so, the government really is missing the point. The “happiness” questions they’re asking go beyond the material world, which is great. But they all rest on a wrong-headed premise: that we can measure happiness by subjective feelings. That’s only partly true.
The larger truth is that happiness is not the pursuit of thrills or gratification of sensual desires. It is, instead, the pursuit of virtue.
America’s founders recognized this: When they talked about “the pursuit of happiness,” they didn’t mean going out and having a good time at the local pub. They were relying on the Greek teaching that happiness was a life of virtue.
If the Brits really want to measure happiness, they should be asking such questions as “Did you act honorably yesterday?” “Are you living a life of integrity?” “Do you help your neighbors?” “Were you faithful to your spouse?” “Did you take care of your family?”
If we live our life this way, we will experience happiness on a much deeper level, and I know this from personal experience. There are plenty of days when I feel miserable -- like in 2008, when the stock market crashed and I lost a big chunk of my retirement plan. And yet, when I go into a prison and see men come to Christ, I feel like a million dollars.
If the Brits define happiness as a mood, they will be missing the point. Moods are an unreliable measure of happiness. But if you spend your life doing things, and behaving in ways that are objectively good, then no matter how bad a day you have now and then, you will find happiness at a deep and satisfying level.
I hope that when the British government begins asking people how happy they are, the church will step in with a reminder of the real and enduring source of happiness: Faith in Christ.
As the Lord Himself said in the Gospel of John: "For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you...If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them."
This article published on April 4, 2011.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.