Time out with Nick Cohen: Poets and Novelists Have Often Tried to Describe Happiness. Andrew Oswald Has Found a Way of Counting It

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I quickly learned that it was pointless to invite Andrew Oswald to engage in fanciful speculation. He is an economist to his bones, who believes in what he can count--and little else. I saw him at Warwick University, and it felt fitting that he should have found a professorship in a monument to the modernism of the mid-1960s. Warwick's blocks show only straight lines; no place here for the decorative. In Oswald's bright, white office there are few individual touches and no unnecessary clutter. Oswald is at home: a numbers man in a suit and tie with nothing to distract him from his calculations.

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Yet this meticulous academic, cooped up in a machine for learning, has released a shockingly hippie version of economics into his dry discipline. When Labour's female politicians worry that the party will lose the next election if it doesn't think about the strains on families, when lain Duncan Smith talks about the importance of marriage and David Cameron says it is time we looked at general well-being as well as gross domestic product index, they are unconsciously passing on ideas that Oswald developed in the early 1990s.

Novelists, poets and psychologists have always thought about happiness. Oswald has found a way of counting it. And this miserabilist approach, this calculus of contentment whose utilitarianism seems against all the spontaneity we associate with happiness, may be a great intellectual breakthrough, precisely because it translates feelings into figures.

If the political interest and the sales of popular "happiness economics" books are a guide, Oswald has provided a tool that will change the way people think, as his once sceptical colleagues are beginning to realise.

"I just have to click on the internet now, and every week there are new papers on happiness written by people I've never met, never heard of," he says. "It has reached some take-off point, so that if someone were to tell me that economists had taken a random sample of 10,000 Koreans and asked them about happiness and mental health, I could bet you that marriage will come through with the same positive coefficient in Korea as in France and the United States. Education will be as important there as here, and the Koreans' happiness will follow a U-shape through life, with a greater chance of unhappiness in people's thirties, just as it does in every country. Human beings are very similar. We're uncovering something deep about them."

Oswald speaks without bravado. He is too good-natured to brag, even though he has every right to be pleased with himself. His is the classic story of the independent-minded researcher with a new idea, who finally forces his indifferent colleagues to take notice.

He is the son of an academic family--his father taught psychiatry at Edinburgh University--whose intellectual life was determined by the crisis of the early 1970s. "I was very committed in my youth to improving the world. I remember sitting on a train reading in the Guardian about stagflation when I was very young, and thinking: 'Yes, I'm going to work on this. I'm going to solve this problem.'" At the time, the decisive response came from Milton Friedman and the free-market right. One aspect of Friedman's work, which was more of an assumption than a detailed argument, profoundly unsettled Oswald and stayed with him for years. In common with most other economists, Friedman supposed that people were rational. In his work on unemployment that was to win him the Nobel Prize, he took it for granted that inflation made sensible people choose unemployment over work--they simply calculated that more leisure compensated for the loss of income, and went on the dole.

The idea that joblessness was voluntary was incredibly useful for Conservatives presiding over the mass unemployment of the 1980s. Norman Tebbit told the 1981 Conservative party conference: "I grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. …