happiness, satisfaction, and GDP

I would like to call everyone’s attention to a superb article written by University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin, a scholar who, years ago, touched off the booming field of “happiness studies”. I, for one, am not convinced that happiness – even life satisfaction or subjective well being – is something we can usefully measure, aggregate and use for policy purposes. Nonetheless, Easterlin makes a spirited, impassioned case for replacing GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with SWB (Subjective Well Being). He has succeeded in convincing me that SWB, with all its faults, is at least preferable to HDI (the UNDP’s Human Development Index) as a measure of welfare.

Here are two paragraphs from the introduction, and two from the conclusion of the essay. The entire essay (4 pages) can be downloaded, copied and printed without charge, so click on the link below. You will not be disappointed.

Since 1990, GDP per person in China has doubled and then redoubled. With average incomes multiplying fourfold in little more than two decades, one might expect many of the Chinese people to be dancing in the streets. Yet, when asked about their satisfaction with life, they are, if anything, less satisfied than in 1990.

The disparity indicated by these two measures of human progress, Gross Domestic Product and Subjective Well Being (SWB), makes pretty plain the issue at hand. GDP, the well-being indicator commonly used in policy circles, signals an outstanding advance in China. SWB, as indicated by self-reports of overall satisfaction with life, suggests, if anything, a worsening of people’s lives. Which measure is a more meaningful index of well-being? Which is a better guide for public policy? ….

Examples of the disparity between SWB and GDP as measures of well-being could easily be multiplied. Since the early 1970s real GDP per capita in the US has doubled, but SWB has, if anything, declined. In international comparisons, Costa Rica’s per capita GDP is a quarter of that in the US, but Costa Ricans are as happy or happier than Americans when we look at SWB data. Clearly there is more to people’s well-being that the output of goods. ….

[W]ith SWB, the judgement of well-being is made by the individuals affected. GDP’s reliance on outside statistical “experts” to make inferences based on a measure they themselves construct looks deeply flawed when viewed in comparison. These judgements by outsiders also lie behind the growing number of multiple-item measures being put forth these days. An example is the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) which attempts to combine data on GDP with indexes of education and life expectancy.

Richard A. Easterlin, “Why our happiness and satisfaction should replace GDP in policy making“, The Conversation, 21 October 2014.

Professor Easterlin, to his credit, ends the essay with these words: “[A]s as measures of well-being go, SWB is [not] the last word, but clearly it comes closer to capturing what is actually happening to people’s lives than GDP ever will. The question is whether policy makers actually want to know.”

HT: Mark Thoma

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