This has been hitting the news a lot over here.  I'll probably write more about this as I read/think more about it.  I'm just free-writing my ideas now so don't consider this my definitive position, and of course I welcome any constructive thoughts and criticisms you have.

Here's the story thus far.  GDP is a flawed measure of societal progress; but, it used to be fantastic.  When a country's basic needs are less well met, GDP is a great indication of how well people are doing.  When a country is rich, things beyond survival come into play, which GDP doesn't pick up.  

David Cameron, never missing an opportunity to quote a Kennedy, has cited Robert Kennedy's speech to this effect as his motivation.  I mentioned that in another post, but I'll copy it here as I like it so much:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Cameron: "I want YOU! (to be happy)"

That about sums it up.  So GDP doesn't tell us enough - the question is what in fact are these other things that matter, and can and should they be measured?


The well-being measures are proposed as the answer.  What is well-being?  Books have been written about that, but in short, there are two ways it is generally measured.  

First, you have global measures of well-being.  Here we're talking about subjective well-being (SWB) or life satisfaction - people will be asked, for instance, how satisfied are you with your life on a scale of 1-10.  On the plus side, people get to use whatever criteria they see fit when answering.  But it's not just measuring a cognitive judgement, as some variation in responses can be accounted for by mood.  So it's a kind of summation of how people feel, plus a judgement of how satisfied they are with their lives.  But, it's a self-report measure and subject to all the flaws that go along with that, and the fact that mood accounts for variance means that responses can be influenced by various things (weather, previous questions in a battery of questionnaires, whether the kids are screaming in the background).  So there's pros and cons.

The second way, is to break down the concept of 'well-being' into things that correlate with or predict it, and measure those.  So for instance, supportive social relationships play a massive role in well-being, so asking questions about people's friendships, relationships, whether they trust their neighbours etc., can point to well-being by proxy.  The problem here is that (a) these are a step removed from well-being and (b) which ones do you use?  There's some subjectivity in this.  Even if you use the ones with the strongest empirical relationship, how did researchers choose to study these things? You can't avoid pushing a particular definition of well-being onto people by measuring it in this way.

National well-being measures are not new.  There's the Wold Values Survey, Gallup's Surveys, The Eurobarometer, and Germany have a panel which measures satisfaction (among other things).  However, the problem is that they aren't great, and they measure slightly different constructs.  Is it satisfaction, happiness, stress, optimism, do they use a 7-point scale, do they use a 3-point scale, do they use a single-item measure or a multi-item measure?  The latter point is important, as single-item surveys are usually used, but these are more 'flimsy' and open to variation based on things like the questions immediately preceding them.  Also, more work has been done to validate some multi-item measures (like the Satisfaction With Life Scale).

So while these measures have been done in the past, they have not been done in a uniform, systematic, and comprehensive way for long periods.  

Should it be measured at all?

Certainly, GDP is flawed and isn't the full picture of a nation.  For me, if this represents a first step away from a pure money focus, then it's a great idea.  Perhaps we move in the direction of what they focus on, and bringing this in might help us move in a different direction.  And what's the purpose of a thriving economy and a high GDP?  It's the happiness of the citizens, surely, based on the economics idea that people pursue their own happiness effectively, so give them money and choice and they'll do just that.  But what if that premise is flawed?  What if choice is bad for well-being, affluence is bad for well-being, consumerism, environmental damage - and so on for different things that have been historically connected to a high GDP?  Why not measure well-being directly (or as 'directly' as we can with the tools available)

One important question is whether governments have the right to intervene in people's happiness.  Is that something that should be left to us?  In a way, yes, but in another sense everything governments do has the potential to impact people's well-being, and their actions are intended (you hope!) to have a positive impact. So they are already interfering in our happiness, why not check up on how they are doing?

Can it be measured, if so how?

Another question is whether the tools available are up to the task.  I highly suspect that you think they are not.  When I tell people about studies that measure happiness with questionnaires, I get predictable reactions - "It's too abstract, you can't condense it to a number, people could just respond randomly."  And true it's not perfect, I've mentioned some criticisms above, but there are others.  On the plus side, some of the scales correlate sensibly with other things - how often people smile, Duchenne smiles vs. fake smiles, observer reports, and left prefrontal cortex activity.  I like the signal to noise analogy - your radio's a bit crackly, sometimes more than others, but the signal's good enough that you can enjoy the music (well, 'enjoy' might be the wrong word to use these days, and internet radio doesn't crackle, but you get my point).  

Also, you can combine the different measuring methods described earlier.  Give a multi-item, global measure of SWB, and also measure some of its correlates - supportive social relationships, autonomy, physical exercise, purpose, engagement, and so on.  This wouldn't be prohibitively expensive, especially compared to all the analysis and reporting that goes into GDP.

Diener and Seligman (2004) also suggest experience sampling methods, where people get a pager which beeps through the day, and they report what they are doing and how they are feeling.  In 2004 when they wrote that, it might have sounded more ambitious than it does today, where everyone and their dog has an iGadget or a Crackberry.

In an ideal world we'd get some objective data too.  Maybe one day there will  be an EEG app for the iPhones that can scan you and tell you how much positive emotion you have, but we don't have that yet.  They are getting smaller now, I saw a store that sold a basic EEG for about $300, that you can play games on.  I really want one!  Either way, the tools we have will have to do.

Why well-being?

Why well-being (as defined earlier), and not something else?  It's perhaps the most global measure of people doing well that you could conceptualise, so at first glance it seems an obvious choice.  But well-being is construct, there isn't a thing called 'well-being' like there is an 'arm' or a 'basal ganglia'; this is but one way of conceptualising and measuring well-being.  Is it right to 'force' that view on society?


We don't know about the long-term implications of having a focus on happiness.  Depending on where and how the data were displayed, it might actually be a bad thing.  Imagine the news, "The FTSE is up but well-being levels are down, cheer up Britain you're not being happy enough!"  Could it be that by putting well-being in people's faces, and encouraging them to be happier, it might have the opposite effect.  That is, a weird kind of feedback loop where someone adopts happiness as a goal, and checks whether they're there or not, and if they're not, feel bad about it, which makes them less likely to cheer up, which....etc.  But this is why the correlates of well-being mentioned earlier could come into play - then there isn't just a pure focus on well-being, but the encouragement of a wider perspective towards things other than economic growth.

Is it really the be all and end all?  If there was a lot of inequality in society, let's even say slavery, but the slaves have high well-being, would we change things or not?  There might be things that are worth pursuing even to the detriment of happiness so defined.  For example, some well-being questionnaires show reduced well-being in parent who have children, so there do seem to be some things which we value but they don't pick up.

Also, might we get dogmatic about well-being? I read something in a paper called Beyond Money by Diener and Seligman (2004) which completely floored me:

"However, many well-being findings point to societal expenditures that are compatible with a conservative viewpoint.  For example, market democracies have much more well-being than totalitarian dictatorships, so military expenditures that protect and extend democracy will increase global well-being."

Yeah let's go invade places that are too unhappy, just to cheer them up!  I can imagine a drilling in some future investigation "Yes I do believe the war was justified; it raised global well-being!" Or countries desperately trying to cheer their citizens up for fear of invasion.

I jest, they don't actually recommend this, they are giving arguments to show that well-being is politically neutral, and won't favour the right or the left (that's another thing worth thinking about too) - but still!

Also, is there the potential that this data could be twisted and used to give an impression that certain policies are working for the masses when really they are working for the few?  Or some other trickery?

Most of the criticisms here, although worth being aware of, are a bit philosophical, because no one is saying well-being should be the be all and end all, nor does anyone think this is a hold panacea, shrouded in celestial light that will save everyone from all that ails them.  Rather, well-being measures are being proposed to supplement, not supersede existing metrics, and help us to learn the impact of these measurables -on- well-being.

I'm sure there was a lot more I wanted to write but I think I'm done.  Like I say I'll probably come back to this topic.  Overall I think it's a good idea and I agree with David Cameron (it does happen occasionally).  What do you think?  Think it's a load of wooly old nonsense?  Or is it a good idea?  Why?  What traps and pitfalls do you envision?  Let me know!


Diener, E.,&Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1-31.