Putting numbers on happiness – new efforts to measure well-being

December 10, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

GDP and income have long been criticized as extremely limited measures of well-being. When I asked my long-suffering 16 year old son Finlay over breakfast what makes people happy, he suggested a playstation (consumption), having kids (parental alarm bells), and a combination of friendship groups – a small tight-knit inner circle, and a wider group of people who ‘know who you are’ so that you ‘get included’. Contributing to unhappiness were divorce rates, and ‘when you can’t do something’, whether through inability or prohibition. Finlay’s list underlines the inadequacy of income as a measure of the ‘good life’.

Discussions of well-being are cropping up all over the place: Barack Obama highlighted the politics of different approaches to measuring progress in his Denver convention speech; in the UK opposition leader David Cameron has committed his party to pursuing ‘a General Well-Being that goes beyond economic prosperity’, and Richard Layard of the LSE has achieved prominence with his book ‘Happiness: Lessons from a New Science’. In France, President Sarkozy has set up the ‘Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ (aka the ‘Stiglitz Commission’), which reports next year, and the OECD club of rich nations has launched an ambitious effort to ‘measure the progress of societies’.

The OECD project has three main goals – reaching agreement on
· What to measure
· How to measure progress
· Ensuring those measures are used

It aims to achieve this through a combination of publications, research and events over several years. Lots of innovative ideas, and a quite open mind on new approaches – for example setting up a ‘wiki progress’ along the lines of the OECD’s wiki gender. The project’s next big moment is the ‘3rd OECD Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy’ in South Korea in October 2009.

It’s often hard to work out why certain issues acquire prominence at a given time – in this case, perhaps it’s the growing evidence that prosperity does not lead to increased happiness beyond a certain level (Layard puts it at a GDP per capita of about $20,000 – the level of New Zealand). It may be born of disillusionment with the failure of the long economic boom of recent years to make people happier (in which case, the end of that boom may sap some of the interest). The OECD captures the sense of malaise:

‘Despite high levels of economic growth in many countries, many experts believe we are not more satisfied (or happier) than we were 50 years ago; that people trust one another – and their governments – less than they used to; and that increased income has come at the expense of increased insecurity, longer working hours and greater complexity in our lives. Much of the world is healthier and people live longer than they did just a few years ago, but environmental problems like climate change cast a shadow over an uncertain future.’

Projects like these should help policy makers grapple with issues such as vulnerability, volatility and inequality, which too often get sidelined in conventional measurement and policy debates, and yet are increasingly recognized as central to development and ‘the good/bad life’. They may also influence the inevitable ‘what comes after the Millennium Development Goals’ debate when that finally takes off, probably around 2010 on the tenth anniversary of the launch of the goals.

It’s an open question whether whatever replaces the MDGs should be another indicator, or something entirely different (such as a new approach, based on listening to poor people’s experiences of poverty, perhaps). Einstein had a sign over his desk reading ‘Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted’ and in some ways I wish we could abandon the cult of measurability and look for other ways to assess progress. But policy makers (at least those not indulging in dubious forms of ‘policy-based evidence making’) will always need evidence to weigh up one possible path against another, and so numbers and indicators will remain important. So Oxfam is going to get involved and take part in the OECD project – I’ll keep you posted.


December 10, 2008
Duncan Green