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How do should we measure well-being?

Happiness and life satisfaction do not coincide and material possessions aren’t enough

| Henry S. Richardson and Erik Schokkaert | Opinions differ on the definition of well-being. Yet there’s a growing consensus that it cannot be reduced to material consumption and that other aspects of life, such as health and good social relations, are essential to being well.

Increasing well-being is generally accepted as one of the essential components of social progress, but if different aspects of life all contribute to well-being, can or should we construct an overall measure of it? For example, is “happiness” a good measure?

Before we can begin to monitor social progress in terms of well-being, we need more clarity on the concept itself.

Measuring happiness

One possibility is to use large opinion surveys in which individuals answer simple questions on their degree of happiness or life satisfaction. These have revealed robust patterns, confirming that economic growth has a weaker than expected effect on satisfaction, and that other aspects of life, such as health and unemployment, are important.

These simple survey measures seem credible. But according to psychologists, happiness and life satisfaction do not coincide. Life satisfaction has a cognitive component – individuals have to step back to assess their lives – while happiness reflects positive and negative emotions that fluctuate.

A focus on positive and negative emotions can lead to understanding well-being in an “hedonic” way, based in pleasure and the absence of pain. Looking instead to individuals’ judgements about what is worth seeking suggests a preference-based approach (a possibility we discuss below). People judge all sorts of different things to be worth seeking.

In other words, happiness may be an element in evaluating one’s well-being, but it is not the only one.

The capability approach

Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has pointed out that understanding well-being on the basis of feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, or happiness has two problems.

The first he calls “physical-condition neglect”. Human beings adapt at least partially to unfavourable situations, meaning the poor and the sick can still be relatively happy. One striking study by a team of Belgian and French physicians has shown that even in a cohort of patients with chronic locked-in syndrome, a majority reported being happy.

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