Recession-weary Britons get happiness index

Spending cuts, rising unemployment, dour winter weather — it's not a good time to ask voters how happy they are.

But that's just what British Prime Minister David Cameron is doing as part of a pledge to improve Britons' lives beyond pure financial gain in the wake of the global recession.

Government statisticians will this year begin measuring the nation's well-being, and on Monday they released details from initial consultations on what the new index should measure — and how it should be measured.

Job security, relationships with families and good health topped the list of indicators that Britons believe are most important.

The Office for National Statistics surveyed 2,000 people about how to measure the index. It will begin tracking the measures in April.

Apparently stung into action by a recent poll that ranked Britain 13th among 22 European nations in terms of life satisfaction, Cameron ordered his government to find ways to make everyone happier.

Cameron is anxious to "start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life."

He has preemptively defended his decision to spend some 2 million pounds ($3 million) on the project, anticipating attacks that it is "airy-fairy and impractical."

But it remains to be seen whether Britons still reeling from the end of a decades-long housing boom that fueled a spending spree lasting until the recent global recession are ready to buy the old adage "money doesn't buy happiness."

The country is facing 80 billion pounds ($128 billion) of public spending cuts by Cameron's Conservative-led coalition as it struggles to get the country's massive budget deficit under control.

Cameron's happiness drive follows a similar move two years ago by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who asked two Nobel prizewinning economists to devise ways to measure quality of life factors in addition to simply economic factors when France is studying its policy options.

Canada has also developed a national well-being index, a concept pioneered by the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the early 1970s.

The good news for Cameron is that the index is unlikely to backfire and reveal deep levels of unhappiness.

"Most people when they respond to things like this are not really ready to contemplate responses that are too negative," said David Bartram, a sociologist at the University of Leicester. "They're more likely to suggest they're happier than they actually are."