More than just happiness? The benefit of measuring eudaimonia

Hot or Cool’s mission is to equip organisations, policymakers, and communities with the science to inform the transition towards a sustainable and prosperous future, and in particular towards lifestyles that promote sustainable wellbeing. There is no one way to understand wellbeing— and the question of how best to define and measure the concept is far from settled. What is clear, however, is that subjective wellbeing, how people feel about their lives, must be an important part of the answer. In our forthcoming updated edition of the Happy Planet Index, we will be using a measure called “Happy Life Years” – a combination of life expectancy with a subjective question measuring life satisfaction – as our measure of wellbeing.

But we recognize that a single question cannot fully capture a person’s life experience. Subjective wellbeing is more than just a single evaluation of life, and more than just happiness. This month, my colleague Saamah Abdallah and I attended a conference hosted by the OECD to explore broader ways to understand and measure the concept.

In 2013, the OECD released a set of guidelines on how to measure subjective wellbeing. At that time the idea that governments should seriously care about subjective wellbeing was fringe. Over the last decade, however, almost all 38 OECD member states have begun collecting extensive data on life satisfaction, affective emotional states, and other elements of subjective wellbeing to inform public policy. The progress has been encouraging, and we now believe the time is right to take a step forward by broadening the concept of subjective wellbeing.

The OECD conference brought together leading scholars and policymakers from around the world to inform an updated set of guidelines. The new guidelines are intended to incorporate the latest methodological and theoretical advances in the field, as well as understand why some recommendations have not been implemented. While life satisfaction as an evaluative measure of subjective wellbeing is now broadly established, there is less consensus on how to measure affective wellbeing (which emotions should be measured, how and when) and children’s wellbeing. Excitingly, the new guidelines will also consider how to ensure wellbeing measurement is globally inclusive, reflecting non-Western understandings of what makes a good life.

Hot or Cool have been commissioned by the OECD to help address a particularly thorny question: If most measures of subjective wellbeing assess whether people feel well, how do we measure whether people are doing well? There is no single answer to this question – scholars have variously emphasized concepts such as virtue, purpose, hope, autonomy and relatedness. In the world of wellbeing research, this set of attributes is often referred to as eudaimonia, a Greek word that roughly translates as “good spirits”. Although the OECD’s original guidelines did include some recommendations on eudaimonia, there have been considerable advances in the last 11 years, both in terms of how to understand eudaimonia, and what it means for other outcomes.

Measuring eudaimonia can provide various benefits. Definitions of wellbeing centred on happiness have long been criticised for being too simplistic and reducing the human experience to a simple individualist hedonic assessment – am I happy or not? – is unreasonable. But what value is happiness without meaning or purpose? Don’t most people also consider the wellbeing of loved ones to be important? Aren’t negative emotions such as sadness and rage a normal, and a healthy part of the human condition? These criticisms often attack strawmen representations of wellbeing, and scholars can easily respond to them using existing data (for example, people who are altruistic score better on even the simplest measures of wellbeing). Nevertheless, the apparent simplicity of subjective wellbeing measurement does seem to give it an image problem. More detailed measurement would make explicit that the field understands the richness of humanity and would make our understanding of that richness more robust.

Secondly, measuring more than just life satisfaction or happiness can help decision-makers understand how and why certain external conditions or life situations are associated with high or low wellbeing, and what can be done about it. For example, people with physical disabilities have lower subjective wellbeing, but is that because of limited feelings of autonomy, poorer social ties, and a lack of sense of purpose in life? Knowing which aspects of eudaimonia are affected by what can help better inform policy and more effectively improve people’s lives.

Over the next few months, we will draw together eudaimonia’s various theoretical foundations and identify a small set of survey questions that can best lead to new insights into the wellbeing of populations. As well as providing new perspectives on what makes for high wellbeing, this data will help policy-makers identify specific elements of wellbeing that need to be addressed in different population groups and help identify how to go about that. We are excited to get to work, and you can stay updated on our progress here.

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