It is with much scepticism that many view Cameron’s recent decision to spend £2 million on a project to assess how happy we are as a nation – and what it will prove is up for debate. We’re currently being asked to fill in a form online and new questions will be added to large household surveys produced by the Office for National Statistics. For a government supposedly intent on having innovation at its core I can’t think of a more traditional and boring method of getting the general public involved.
Yet there are some extremely interesting innovations currently evolving in the mobile scene around health and happiness. Perhaps Cameron would be interested in checking out the iPhone App Mappiness to see how data can be obtained in a fun – but importantly anonymous – way, involving users in the whole experience and providing data for users’ own personal use as well as data for a specific project.
Launched by George MacKerron at the London School of Economics, the iPhone application Mappiness plots users happiness over time taking into account their location, what they’re doing, how relaxed and awake they are. You receive a few pings randomly more or less every day so it’s not too intrusive and you can view your own personal data to assess yourself (which is interesting – I’ve been testing it for one week now). The data is aggregated anonymously producing a real-time happiness meter and a photo-map showing the happiest locations in the UK. Although in the early stages of development this project and no doubt many more like it will be emerging in more complex forms in the future.
It’s worth noting though that trying to quantify happiness and how to obtain it has been a serious pursuit over the years. Back in 1789 Jeremy Bentham wrote “Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” in which he outlined his felicific calculus theory which calculates how a moral act is one which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This then ‘radical’ outlook made him a vocal critic of many legal and political institutions of the day. In a later book ‘Constitutional Code’ he suggested that political reform should be dictated by the principle that the new system would promote the happiness of the majority of the people affected by it. Hence, he was in favour of universal suffrage, vote by ballot and annual parliaments – and also stated that there should be no king, no House of Lords, and no established church. Selection of government officials, he declared, should be by competitive examination and their work should be inspected continuously. Politicians, he remarked, should be reminded that they are the “servants, not the masters, of the public”.
Perhaps Cameron should revisit Felicific Calculus then and see what it can teach him this time around…