‘Subjective well-being’ measures gain international clout.
BY TORI DEANGELIS
If you’ve ever rubbed elbows in an Irish pub, visited a Danish city where people ride community-owned bicycles, or witnessed an American neighborhood coming together
after a tragedy, you know there’s more to a country’s wealth
than money can buy.
article in the American Psychologist. Since then, he and other
leading psychologists, including Daniel Kahneman, PhD, of
Princeton University, and Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, of the
University of Pennsylvania, have added theory and data to the
topic, arguing that such measures can add both richness and
objectively useful information to public policy discussions and
goals. In the last few years, they’ve also worked hard to validate
The OECD guidelines include questions in three areas: life
evaluation, which captures people’s cognitive impression of the
quality of their lives; affect, or how people feel at a given point
in time; and “eudaimonia,” or contentment, which examines
people’s sense of meaning and purpose.
Such data can be useful by themselves, in relation to
other data, and as comparison points with other countries
or on specific factors within countries, Diener notes. On the
individual level, people who score high on subjective well-being are likely to live longer, do better in the workplace and
have lower health-care costs, for example. On a national scale,
subjective well-being is associated with high social capital —
or citizens’ propensity to trust and respect one another — and
with lower crime rates.
Subjective well-being data can also have predictive value,
Smith says. Over the past decade, for instance, the human
development index — a composite measure of life expectancy,
educational attainment and income — rose throughout North
Africa and the Arab world. But about 18 months before the
Arab Spring began in 2010, subjective well-being scores in
those countries began to plummet, and they dropped most
significantly in some of the first countries to take part in the
uprising, Tunisia and Egypt.
“It’s clear that these measures pick up things that matter to
people that other indicators simply don’t catch,” says Smith.
The OECD action represents an opportunity for
psychologists to share data that are relevant to international
public policy not only in this one aspect of psychological
research, but in other areas of the science as well, Diener adds.
“Ideally, such data would include questions in all of
the policy-related areas that psychologists study — social,
personality and developmental.” n
For a copy of the guidelines, visit www.oecd.org/statistics/