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How to understand measures of wellbeing?

“Canada is the 7th happiest country in the world” reads the headline.[1] Great news for Canada, it seems. Increasingly, the science of happiness and wellbeing is taking up the space of the science pages in newspapers. But, can researchers really quantify how happy people are? And if so, how do we become more like Finland[2] – the happiest country in the world?

Starting from Francis Bacon, at least one motivation for engaging in science, and specific sciences, is the betterment of human kind. But, what makes life better? In discussing this question, philosophers use the term wellbeing: how good life is for the person living it – how good your life is for you. Clearly, wellbeing is important, according to some philosophical views, it even is the root of all value. Knowing which people are doing very well, and which ones are doing less well is important in itself, but measuring people’s wellbeing also opens up the door to answering this fundamental type of scientific question: which things make our life good for us? In other words, there are high promises for a measure of wellbeing.

So, how do scientists measure wellbeing? This depends highly on their field of research and on the view that they take on what wellbeing really is, and that is a philosophical question. There are, roughly, three theories. On a first theory, wellbeing is the same as happiness: being in a joyful psychological state. This is the most widely shared theory in the measurement of wellbeing and is particularly popular among psychologists. But, there is also the preference-theory, that states that people’s lives are good when their life is what they want it to be. This can be something else than being happy. For example, an Olympic athlete may think that all the pain and tiresome training is worth the final victory, even if the happiness felt at that moment is not quite as “large” as the pain of training. Traditionally, the concept of wellbeing in economics is based on this theory. Finally, on objectivist views, even people who have achieved what they want, and are happy, may not be doing well if they do not have a couple of other goods that matter to everyone, independent of how they feel about these goods – for example: virtue, knowledge, health, and friendships. All these three views have different implications for how to measure wellbeing.

So, to start with the most popular theory among researchers, how to measure happiness? The method that is most common among happiness researchers is to use a single question: how happy or satisfied are you with your life on a scale from 0 to 10?[3] When I discuss this with people who do not know this, they are sometimes surprised by this. Can we really measure happiness by just asking people?

And indeed, both philosophers and scientists have been skeptical of this approach for several reasons: 1) are responses to these questions not determined by contingencies of the moment: how nice the weather is outside, for example? 2) Is happiness really the same as wellbeing? And, 3) are the standards that people use to evaluate their happiness really the same?

The first two concerns are not convincing. While earlier research indicated that contingencies, such as at the weather outside, have some effect, we have learned that these effects are small. And, if happiness is not the same as wellbeing, it surely is one of its most important aspects, and being happy seems worthwhile to study in itself. However, the third problem is real: when our lives change, the standards we apply to assessing our happiness also change. Different from temperature, when we measure happiness, everybody must apply their own scale. This scale may be the same for everyone, but we do not know that, and there is no good way to find out. It is as if we would be measuring temperature with a different fluid (mercury, alcohol, water, etc.) in every place.

What about the other theories of wellbeing? The logic behind the preference-theory is elegant: if I want tea, then tea must be good for me. However, a first measurement problem is that we simply have a lot of preferences – for example, we have preferences about our future, our friendships, and what we want for breakfast tomorrow morning. But, what’s more, the simple logic of this approach quickly breaks down if we look at certain examples: if I choose to smoke, is smoking good for my wellbeing? These theories look better if we add some conditions: only those preference indicate what is good for us that are rational, well-informed, and that are about me. But, by adding these conditions, it becomes difficult to measure. People do not always meet these conditions, and our real preferences may be different from the ones we would have if we were rational, fully informed, and thinking only about our own benefit.

There are also measure more complex measures of wellbeing based on the objective theory of wellbeing. These measure wellbeing by scoring people’s education, housing, health, etc. But a central question remains: if we have these goods, but we are not happy, are we really doing well?

Where does this leave us? Ultimately, measuring wellbeing is hard. But, the problems should not leave us overly pessimistic. For one, sometimes all measures point in the same direction. Or, sometimes we can reasonably expect that a difference in happiness cannot be due to a difference in standards that different people may apply. If that happens, we can draw conclusions from the data about wellbeing. But, all in all, we should be careful. The science of wellbeing is young, and the measures of wellbeing that we have do not yet come close to the scientific measures of mass, temperature, or even inflation. Not only are there disagreements about how to measure wellbeing and what causes it, but also on what wellbeing is.

When reading news about research and wellbeing and happiness, we should keep this in mind. So, to end on an optimistic note: Canada can congratulate itself on its 7th place but should not try to be more like Finland yet.

  Willem van der Deijl (July 2018)


[2] http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2018/

[3] There are alternatives measures of happiness. Some have argued that asking people how they feel happy they feel right now is more reliable than asking them how they feel about their life as a whole, and a better indicator of their happiness. And others have suggested that measures of happiness should combine measures of life satisfaction with measures of how they feel at particular times. But, the overall methodology is the same.