Yesterday the Office for National Statistics published its first annual report on the happiness of the nation. It follows David Cameron’s instruction in 2010 that government should to start to track levels of wellbeing, not just GDP.

The idea that promoting ‘happiness’ ought to be a policy goal is easily derided. ‘You're a swing voter on £25k in Edgbaston. After work you watch the news and see the govt has paid to learn that happiness has fallen by 13%’, tweeted the FT’s Janan Ganesh yesterday, doing a pretty effective job. And there are, of course, limitations to the idea – many of which are set out in this brilliant paper (pdf) by Nobel Economist Amartya Sen. Some people may have much higher happiness thresholds than others, for example – does that mean they should have more resources or opportunities than others?

None of that means that policymakers should give up the idea of wellbeing though. The swing voter in Edgbaston probably agrees that there is more to life than money – and that governments ought to work towards our real priorities, not just those that can be easily measured. The challenge is how any of this helps you make decisions in practice.

People may value family life, for example, but how many would trade in some income for better work–life balance – and how much? People might complain about the length of their commute to work, but would they prefer public money to be spent on building more affordable homes? The problem is that policymakers rarely know what kind of economy people really want because the public is rarely asked to confront the trade-offs between these different choices. 

A new report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers this week helps policymakers begin to fill in the blanks. It builds on the Demos-PwC ‘good growth index’, developed last year, which produced a statistical model that forces people to make decisions about their real priorities by trading them off against one another. The report found that income and jobs only account for roughly a third of what the public thinks is important when considering what a successful economy might look like.  

The new PwC report takes that work a stage further to offer a new assessment of which cities have models of economic growth closest to people’s real priorities. The report ranks some of the UK’s regional cities including Aberdeen, Warrington and the Wirral, and Belfast higher than larger cities including London, Birmingham, and Manchester. And it identifies a ‘price for success’ with cities like Bristol, which do relatively well on jobs, income and health producing relatively low scores for work–life balance and housing affordability.

The implications of the report will be for local people and their elected representatives to work out – but the study (available here) marks a significant step forward in translating generalised conversations about wellbeing into a practical agenda for government.

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