The Dangers of Measuring Well-being

Enda McCaffrey

A fad has started, particularly among leading European nations, to use ways, other than the traditional mechanism of GDP or PIB (production interne brut in France), to measure happiness and well-being. Sarkozy’s revival and dissatisfaction with the state of France’s economy in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, prompted him to commission a report by leading economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to ‘identify the limits of GDP (PIB) as an indicator of economic performance and social progress, including problems with measurement, and to consider what additional information might be required’.[1] This report had some good points. There is a commendable emphasis on sustainability, an acknowledgement by economists that their official statistics were flawed, that economic confidence as a result had been dented, that better measures were needed and, interestingly, that the ‘measurement system’ adopted by economists needed to incorporate the well-being of current and future generations.[2] The scope of the report is also wide-ranging; the audience inclusive. However, there are issues of concern. There is an acknowledgement that governments ‘need better metrics’ – so metrics remain. The report states that ‘we are working towards the development of a statistical system that complements measures of market activity by measures centred on people’s well-being’ – again, the primacy of the market is linked with human worth. The report also suggests a shift from production to greater attention to household wealth. But, far from a shift, it would appear that what is at work is nothing more than the displacement of the discourse of production of the market to a discourse of production of the household. Specifically, the nature of ‘well-being’ is defined in terms of ‘how well-off we are’, our ‘living standards’, ‘household income’, ‘trends in consumption’. ‘Wealth’, it states, ‘provides a better measure of what is happening to the ‘typical individual’ or ‘household’. ‘Well-being’ is measured in terms of ‘money units’ and ‘functionings’. And then there is this penultimate recommendation:

Research has shown that it is possible to collect meaningful and reliable data on subjective as well as objective well-being. Subjective well-being encompasses different aspects (cognitive evaluations of one’s life, happiness, satisfaction, positive emotions such as joy and pride, and negative emotions such as pain and worry): each of them should be measured separately to derive a more comprehensive appreciation of peoples’ lives […]. Despite the persistence of many unresolved issues, these subjective measures provide important information about quality of life. Because of this, the types of questions that have proved their value within small-scale and unofficial surveys should be included in larger scale surveys undertaken by official statistical offices.

This month, the UK government has started a similar initiative to measure people’s psychological and environmental well-being with a view (and this is its innovation) to placing eventual results at the heart of future government policy-making. Under the auspices of the Office of National Statistics, respondents to the existing household survey will be polled on their subjective well-being, which will include a gauge of happiness and how citizens are achieving their life goals. From governmental perspectives, both initiatives demonstrate attempts to register not only national mood but also individual circumstances. Governments are being seen to respond to the relative failure/inaccuracy of the abstract model of GDP as a measure of socio-economic progress. Also, it could be argued that these initiatives are ways of bridging the gap between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ realities, as well as placating the broader economic community and its call for a more eclectic approach to economic forecasting. But there are other ways of interpreting these initiatives. As the last but one recommendation in the Stiglitz report, the concern for ‘subjective realities’ is hardly a priority and appears to be buried conveniently among more urgent recommendations that promote the market and metric measurement. As such, the reality of these initiatives is that they generate more skepticism and accusations of tokenism. There are no definitions of what is meant by well-being or happiness or how they are constituted. They appear as unformulated appendices to the main Stiglitz text. Similarly, there is no explanation how psychology, for example, can influence and affect well-being, nor is there an indication how well-being or happiness can actually change policy-making. More worryingly, there is no information about what will be done with the data recovered in these surveys. Canvassing public opinion in an age of austerity carries with it its own political risks. But not withstanding that, there is an overriding sense of mauvaise foi in these government initiatives; they form part of a hollow consensual, compassionate politics (the culture of ‘we are all in it together’) that in reality prioritises the gestural politics of feel-good factor over the subjective reality of feelings experienced and yet to be experienced at the prospect of deep public sector cuts. In the British case, we have yet to see how well-being can influence policy-making. A recent study in the UK on economic well-being highlights the complex nature of this type of measurement. Harvie, Slater, Philip and Wheatley (2009) argue that there is no one simple unit of measurement, that in fact economic welfare levels are different across regions and therefore if data is to be used to inform policy then labour market, demographic factors and social productivity (to name only a few) need to be incorporated into this analysis of economic well being.[3] Sarkoy and Cameron have their work cut out.


[1] Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

[2] The Stiglitz report acknowledges that economists were in part to blame for failing to forecast the 2008 financial crisis. But there is a disconnection between acknowledgement of fault and constructive action for change. Valérie Charolles calls for an end to economic ‘forecasting’ and the creation of a ‘nouvel espace pour le décidable’, (‘Quand faut-il s’arrêter de compter?’, Esprit, no. 361, (pp. 84-97).

[3] David Harvie, Gary Slater, Bruce Philip and Dan Wheatley, ‘Economic Well-being and British Regions: The Problem with GDP Per Capita’, Review of Social Economy, Vol. LXVII, no. 4, December 2009: 483-505.

This entry was posted in Morality, philosophy, theory, The crisis and the economy, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

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