Sun, Nov 28, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Taking the pulse of public opinion

By Tu Jenn-hwa 杜震華

I read that British Prime Minister David Cameron is asking the UK’s Office of National Statistics to draft new measures of “general wellbeing,” and publish such figures regularly — most likely on a quarterly basis — in order to gauge the British people’s psychological well-being and their quality of life as a reference for government policy. If everything goes well, a questionnaire will be designed and launched next spring. At the same time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last year that the government was to take the public’s happiness as an indicator of economic progress. Canada is also looking into the feasibility of a similar system.

Surveys on general wellbeing or happiness have long been valued in advanced Western countries. The US World Value Survey has investigated people’s subjective sense of wellbeing in various countries for quite a long time. More recently, both the British New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth have released the Happy Planet Index, focused mainly on environmental protection.

In Taiwan, the Cabinet’s Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics originally added a survey on the wellbeing of the Taiwanese to its annual social development trends report between 1998 and 2007. Unfortunately, subsequent surveys proved rather inconclusive, and this poll has been shelved.

After Taiwan’s second transfer of power in mid-2008, a more complete survey appeared as the Taiwan Competitiveness Forum (TCF), a new non-governmental organization (NGO), published an initial “happiness index,” followed by a second in the middle of last year. Surprisingly, the survey results showed that the public’s happiness was increasing in spite of the global financial crisis.

Seemingly, then, the relationship between economic prosperity and our sense of happiness differs somewhat from what we would intuitively assume. This is certainly worth looking into more deeply, and we could benefit from long-term surveys for different areas, cities, counties and aspects of life, all of which could inform policymaking. For example, former British prime minister Tony Blair took such survey results as a reference for his labor employment policy, showing that they can make a significant contribution.

Unfortunately, the plug was pulled on research into the Taiwanese index, a victim of the economic downturn. The TCF did not publish survey results this year.

A government should not allow such important surveys to be discontinued, or let private NGOs struggle to produce them with absolutely no support.

Many factors contribute to the public’s sense of happiness: Family relationships; marriage; the state of the economy; social interaction; income distribution; living standards; quality of education and transportation; democratic participation; government corruption — or lack thereof; cross-strait relations; and the perceived effectiveness of government policies.

These factors, linked as they are to people’s perception of their own happiness and wellbeing, can affect election results. We cannot expect economic performance alone to account for the results of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Even if surveys, based exclusively on economic indicators existed, they would be unlikely to tell us much about the reasons for electoral results.

A smart government would exploit the advantage of being in power to commission regular opinion polls, which could inform policy and help secure votes. Assuming that the surveys are objective, academics could also use them for their research, which in turn would serve as valuable reference points in improving the quality of life in communities throughout the country.

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