Tuesday 1 March 2011

The ONS and subjective well-being

The Office of National Statistics is taking an interest in subjective measures of well-being. A new paper has just appeared, "Spotlight on: Subjective well-being", edited by Stephen Hicks. There is a link to it at the top of this page.


My immediate reactions to this ONS exercise include the following.

1. We need to sort out whether we mean happiness as flourishing or happiness as an internal sense that may be joy, contentment or something else in that general area. If the surveyors ask people about their levels of happiness, I expect that most people will take an internal sense to be meant. But if public policy is to be steered by the results of this kind of work, should we mean flourishing? And if we should, is that something subjective, to be measured by asking people about their own lives, or something to be measured by other means? Eudaimonia is discussed on page 13 (the fifteenth page of the pdf) and on page 16, and it is treated as something to be measured subjectively.

2. If we do mean flourishing, it would be interesting to see whether we could define it in more elevated terms than the meeting of needs one finds in the bottom three or four layers of Maslow's hierarchy, while still having a robust definition, and whether we could do so in a way that would overcome the paternalism objection in the report (top of page 3). The question (the fourth question at the top of page 15) avoids paternalism by asking for an opinion about the value of whatever content the subject's life happens to have. Alternative questions about a sense of autonomy avoid paternalism by asking about the actual form of a life (not one's evaluation of it), rather than considering the life's content. These are different approaches, and we should think hard about which would be the better approach.

3. Should this sort of thing steer public policy, either by leading the state to choose measures that have the main goal of increasing well-being, or by using the results of work in this area as one factor to consider when choosing between policies? My own inclination is to allow the latter but not the former. The former would only encourage an already hyper-active state, and would also be beyond what I regard as the legitimate competence of government. There was a Cabinet Office paper in 2002, "Life satisfaction: the state of knowledge and implications for government" by Nick Donovan, David Halpern and Richard Sargeant. Official nervousness about government involvement in this field was revealed by the fact that every page bore the warning "This is not a statement of government policy". (The paper is now available here.)

4. We must both be sensitive to cultural differences when comparing answers to questions about happiness from different countries, and not get excited about small differences, such as those between Britain, Australia and Sweden (top of the page numbered 7). Such differences in sample results may signify nothing of any importance, and certainly do not signify anything that is large enough for governments to even think about action on the strength of the differences. The levers of government policy are too crude to make small adjustments without having large side-effects.

5. It is disappointing that philosophers do not feature much in the bibliography to the ONS report. This sort of work is interesting, but if the ONS could get thinkers from a range of disciplines (philosophy, anthropology, psychology, etc) actively involved, on the inside and not just as external commentators, the result could be much richer.


  1. Many people cannot find an answer to the question: what do I live for ?

    Would philosophy help here ?

  2. I think it can help, despite the claims of many academic philosophers that the modern discipline has little or nothing to do with the meaning of life. But lots of other things can help too. The best remedy for ennui is to give the brain some work to do, and many disciplines can do that.

  3. I see what you mean, but so many highly educated people on philosophy forums despair because they cannot answer this simple philosophical question. They try to find an answer and there is none. They drug themselves merry in order to forget about it. They suffer from insomnia.

    Do you mean that giving your brain work to do is a sort of healthy drug which will distract the brain from thinking about the unanswered problems of human existence ?

  4. I don't think that giving the brain work is drugging the brain so it no longer cares about important questions. If the work is serious work, thinking about difficult questions, where one could not just look up the answers, the conduct of that work is one of the answers to the important questions. Hard thinking is a purpose of life, although not the only purpose. I mean E-Denken, not U-Denken (but F-Denken is fine).

  5. E-Denken ? U-Denken ? F-Denken ? Noch nie gehört.

    K-Denken: Kreatives Denken.
    Seit gestern schreibe ich beim Frühstück an einem Krimi.
    Auch wenn der Sprung vom Argumentieren zur Literatur einige Überwindung kostet ...

  6. Ernstes Denken, unterhaltendes Denken und funktionales Denken, sowie E-Musik, U-Musik und F-Musik.