Bring Me Sunshine

Ever the researcher, Mark Hedley this week ponders how easy and practical it is to measure happiness

As we move out of the long British winter and into the first days of spring I can feel my mood lighten a little every day as the long dark winter nights turn into bright spring days. Having lived abroad for the last couple of years, this was my first winter in the UK for quite some time, and I have to admit to being more than a little influenced by a distinct lack of sunshine and what I suppose would be referred to as ‘seasonal affected disorder’ (SAD) or the winter blues.

It’s a strange phenomenon, but I do find that my happiness levels are generally much lower between the months of November and February, which seems to bear out the scientific theory that human happiness is directly linked to the cycle of the seasons. Perhaps it’s not just the seasons that have been affecting my mood – it does seem that all the doom and gloom going on in recent months, with news of economic recession, huge public sector cuts, rising unemployment and inflation have further exaggerated the bleak feeling of the winter months this year.

Without wanting to get too morose and philosophical here, it does make you wonder what happiness is exactly and how it can adequately be defined (or controlled)? Does happiness vary between different people within different cultures, and if so, are there any universal measures of happiness common to all people? How important is money to happiness for example? How important are financial factors compared to health, relationships with other people, or job satisfaction? Finally, what role does weather and the environment play in affecting our levels of happiness and personal satisfaction?

It was announced recently that the British government has decided to start measuring people’s psychological and environmental wellbeing. Apparently, the Office of National Statistics has been asked to produce a ‘happiness’ index that can be used alongside the normal GDP figures to indicate national prosperity and wellbeing. Yesterday it was revealed that the ONS will soon be asking 200,000 British people in its regular household survey just how satisfied they are with their lives.

The survey will use a 10 point scale to pose a range of questions relating to levels of happiness and satisfaction. The survey will include some of the following questions:

• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?

• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?

• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

While the purpose of this exercise is to enable the British government to use something other than hard economic data to formulate public policy in the future, it will also be interesting to see what the results of the survey are. What is the mean average happiness score for British people? Will this vary between locations, different age groups or between men and women? Are British people, on average, happier than the French, Greeks or Italians? I suppose that the real value of the study will lie in whether it is able to provide accurate and reliable data on what are the main drivers of happiness for the majority of British people, and what steps should be taken to help improve the happiness of a nation in the future.

The professional market researcher in me remains sceptical at the ability of this type of questionnaire to deal effectively with as subjective and ethereal concept as human happiness. Although a point scale questionnaire such as this offers useful general quantitative indicators on trends in happiness, it is questionable as to how far such a survey can really get to the bottom of the drivers that shape happiness and wellbeing for people in the UK.

In b2b research, as with sociological research, the principle job of the research is to get to the heart of the issue and understand the complex array of factors that drive behaviour (whether it be an individual or an organization). Nowadays it is generally recognized that while quantitative measures and scales provide some insight into market behaviour, this often only tells one side of the story. Examining the drivers behind the numbers more often than not requires a questionnaire format that includes open qualitative questioning to allow the respondent to give free reign to his or her thought and to tease out the hidden motivations that may shape behaviour. As when trying to understand the reasons why an individual may or may not be happy, in business to business research it is important to recognize that a myriad of factors can affect the views of an organization, including everything from product quality, price levels and level of service through to brand reputation and word-of-mouth recommendation.

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