Subjective indicators of well-being: where happiness measures fall short

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The last thirty years have seen a rapid proliferation of social scientific research into happiness and wellbeing. In particular, social indicators research has emphasised the importance of happiness measures at a national level, alongside more traditional economic or ‘objective’ measures like GDP-growth and per-capita income, for the monitoring of societal progress. Happiness measures are, at the very least, important measures to include alongside the more conventional economic indicators in national accounts, if we are to have a proper understanding of all dimensions of human well-being and progress. Interest in measuring and incorporating happiness into policy has been fuelled by well-publicised analyses of people’s self-reported levels of happiness from population surveys like the European Social Survey. Such surveys ask generalised questions about happiness, along the lines of: “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are, 00 being extremely unhappy and 10 being extremely happy?” Studies aggregating these measures to a national level contrast such measures with rates of GDP growth. They have found that if a country’s level of GDP is high, it does not necessarily follow that levels of subjective well-being (such as feelings of happiness or satisfaction) will match this (Easterlin, 1974, Layard, 2005, Veenhoven, 1994). This paper will firstly consider the assumption made in social indicators research that high levels of happiness represent societal progress. Why is this assumption made? How and why is happiness seen to be such an important ’goal’ in contemporary western society? This paper will put forward some sociological arguments that help to answer these questions. The paper will then go on to discuss how existing happiness research fails to acknowledge some of the shortfalls of happiness survey measures as social indicators. In particular, they fail to acknowledge the socio-cultural factors – such as social norms - that influence people’s feelings of happiness. Concepts that are highlighted in the sociological literature will be presented and discussed. A new methodology for measuring happiness, that primarily adopts a time-use approach, is proposed. This alternative to the survey measures would be able to capture and reflect socio-cultural influences on happiness, and would thus generate more reliable measures. Data obtained from this could also be of more use in informing policy decisions concerned with the advancement of societal progress.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007
EventThe European Survey Research Association conference - University of Economics, Prague
Duration: 25 Jun 200729 Jun 2007


ConferenceThe European Survey Research Association conference
CityUniversity of Economics, Prague


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