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David Mitchell | May 15, 2018

A week before the announcement that according to the UN’s World Happiness Report the world’s happiest country is Finland, Yaprak Tavman’s talk provided some tools to help us interpret this sort of claim.

The Ottoline Club met on 6th March 2018 to hear Yaprak Tavman (Faculty of Economics) speak on “Subjective Well-being as a Measure of Welfare”.

Those present were: Yaprak Tavman, Marianna Koli (Faculty of Economics), Callum Barrell (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Patrycja Kaszynska (Faculty of Art History), Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Stephen Dnes (Faculty of Law), Susan Steed (Faculty of Economics), Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).


Yaprak was addressing the question whether public policy, rather than taking as its objective the increase of economic production, as measured by GDP figures, should be overtly targeted upon something under the title of ‘happiness’ or ‘subjective well-being’. There are many reasons to think that doing so would make some difference: according to the Easterlin paradox, supported by data for the US, though richer individuals tend to be happier than poorer, the increase of GDP over time isn’t accompanied by a rise in the gross level of happiness. Again, the comparison between the effect of unemployment on income and its effect on personal well-being is out of line with the corresponding comparison for other factors.

But how reliable are the indices that tell us such things? Yaprak gave reasons for thinking today’s ‘life evaluation surveys’ are quite robustly and unequivocally informative: not only do various alternative forms of question, in terms of happiness, satisfaction, and quality of life, elicit consonant answers, these answers correlate well with plausible behavioural indices, and do so even across time, as is the case for people’s quitting their jobs, or their marriages’ breaking up. In fact, Yaprak went on, the surveys help policy further by exposing a number of explanatory variables, factors that tend to contribute to happiness, some of them attributes of individuals and others of societies. These do include material living standards, but a range of other factors are independently important, such as health, personal relationships and social capital.


World Happiness Report

In the last part of her talk, Yaprak compared the country rankings given by the World Happiness Report with those of a more complex measure, the Happy Planet Index, which takes into account also a population’s longevity, its ecological footprint, and, since a couple of years ago, its degree of income inequality.

At the top of the former rankings one finds the Nordic and certain other rich countries; in the latter, Costa Rica is in first place, followed by a mix of Central American and SE Asian countries.

No doubt the HPI’s taking environmental sustainability explicitly into account is a point in its favour as a measure of public policy’s merits; but the WHR, with its narrower focus, is highly instructive as well, so Yaprak argued, in that it too directs attention to the social as distinct from the material sources of well-being.


Most of the points made in discussion granted the prima facie attractiveness of taking subjective well-being as a policy target and then raised specific worries. As regards how well individuals’ answers reflect their real state of mind, Marianna suggested that norms concerning blame and responsibility can make people hesitate to be fully honest. Callum, Sebastian and Susan aired several concerns about the aetiology of people’s assessments of their own well-being, whether this have to do with their knowledge of what influencing factors past surveys have picked out, or political influence over mass media, or local councils’ efforts to game the measure.

Callum also pointed out that as indicators of the factors that influence well-being there would seem to be plenty of room for discord between respondents’ own assessments of causes, on the one hand, and, on the other, the upshot of statistical analysis of further aspects of their responses. This has some affinity, as Sebastian noted, to a familiar issue about declared vis-à-vis ‘revealed’ preferences, the potential conflict between verbal evidence and the evidence provided by actual choices.

There were, however, various doubts expressed also regarding whether enhancing subjective well-being really should be a prime target for policy. Susan – whose experience both in working at the New Economics Foundation, the organisation responsible for the HPI, and in doing research into obesity and well-being meant she could offer helpful observations at various points in the discussion – brought up a worry about the enforcement, as it were, of happiness. Stephen spoke up for GDP, not least as being, he maintained, a strong proxy, under competitive conditions, for efficiency in resource use.

Mike wondered whether the main drawback of GDP might be simply its weighting different goods by their prices; could a differently weighted measure of production perhaps be the best target? To this, Marianna replied that production, simply as a category, assimilates the waging of wars too much to the building of roads. She also made the more general remark, applying just as much to life evaluation surveys as well, that for policy purposes the data on the separate relevant variables have great value whether or not one also attempts to aggregate them into a single multidimensional index.

David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy