Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Subjective Well-Being, or "Measuring Happiness and Opportunity as a Benchmark for Policy"

“When we think about policy then I think we need to make some normative choices about what versions of happiness societies care about… I certainly think that the US, which has the pursuit of happiness in the declaration, and has traditionally emphasized opportunities over outcomes, would opt for an Aristotelian definition [of life-fulfillment]. If we went as far as to say that happiness is a benchmark for policy and we have an Aristotelian definition allowing citizens to lead fulfilling lives, then promising happiness in that sense as a policy objective requires providing all citizens with the agency to pursue it.”

In recent years, a number of countries have begun to incorporate measures of subjective well-being – or “happiness” – into their benchmarks for development and national progress. Even in the United States, policymakers and academics are beginning to consider the merits of measuring happiness and its role in public discourse. This is great part because of the work of Carol Graham and her colleagues.

Graham introduced her work to a Brookings Institute forum this past October with an overview of what it means to speak about happiness in the context of public welfare. She presents the audience with a U-shaped curve on a graph, and explains that levels of subjective well being in the simplest sense tend to fall as an individual grows out of childhood, but then rise as respondents are older (the average turning point among respondents was at about 44 years of age globally). This U-curve model of happiness by age is surprisingly consistent across global regions when controlling for health status and being in a stable partnership. What’s more, there are a handful of individual indicators of happiness that are remarkably consistent across the world, including health and stable partnerships, but also employment, mobility and income (which is causally related to experiences of deprivation) among others. Recent research has explored the impact of subjective well-being on other fields and behaviors, and initial findings suggest that people are healthier and are more productive when they are happy.

Graham suggests that as these relationships between happiness and publicly desired outcomes are brought to light through measurable data, and as standards of human welfare are integrated into discussions of development, we are faced with an important question: what definition of happiness is most relevant to public policy if we intend to use it as a serious measure of national progress? Graham and her colleagues found that the definition of happiness that people give depends on their respective social agency – that is, it is influenced by their perceived opportunities and ability to affect change in their own environment.

Among individuals with low mobility or opportunity, definitions of happiness tended to focus around day-to-day contentment. Among individuals with high upward mobility, happiness tends to be defined around ideas of Aristotelian life-fulfillment. This latter group generally reports lower levels of “subjective well-being” than does the former when measured against terms of enjoyment and current satisfaction, reflecting the more existential preoccupation of upwardly mobile individuals. The former group conversely identifies small successes, social relationships and religion as requisites to happiness.

The author acknowledges that there are certainly many issues to resolve before happiness can become a formal policy objective, but the use of happiness as an independent measurement in policy metrics is a positive step toward a more holistic and arguably more accurate understanding of public welfare. The author and her colleagues hope in the coming years to parse out the nuances of the debate over what versions of happiness to pursue as a society. Finally panel suggests that despite the pessimism and turmoil of America’s current political climate, we may indeed be faced with a unique opportunity to begin a public dialogue about the role of subjective well being in public policy as Americans challenge the priorities of their government.

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