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Well-Being Measures for Public Policy. Ed Diener University of Illinois, and Senior Scientist, The Gallup Organization United Nations Development Program October 8, 2008. Subjective Well-Being (SWB). People’s evaluations of their lives – in both thoughts and feelings. For example:

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Well-Being Measures for Public Policy

Ed Diener

University of Illinois, and

Senior Scientist, The Gallup Organization

United Nations Development Program

October 8, 2008

Subjective Well-Being (SWB)

People’s evaluations of their lives – in both thoughts and feelings. For example:

Life satisfaction

Marital, work, & health satisfaction

Pleasant emotions, e.g. Joy, affection, & trust

Low negative emotions, e.g., anger & depression


Subjective well-being helps reveal the progress of societies – quality of life

It provides useful new information to policy makers

-- with some policy examples

Also SWB directly benefits societies – health, longevity, prosperity, and peace

Finally, I will answer objections

10: Best Possible Life


  • Gallup

    World Poll









0: Worst Possible Life

Culture and Well-Being


Why not just measure income, education, and longevity – the HDI?

Limitations of Existing Indicators, Including the HDI

  • What they do not measure

    e.g., Trust

    Air pollution

    Gender equality

    Job security

    Green urban space


Characteristics of Nations Missed by HDI?

SWB measures more than the HDI:Correlates of National Life Satisfaction

  • Income .82

  • Longevity .73

  • Political stability .52

  • Trust other people .48

  • Unemployment-.44

  • Time with family/friends .41

Example: Crime

  • Assault rate adds to the prediction of Life Satisfaction beyond the HDI

2. HDI Has Low CeilingDifferentiation only for less developed nations

3. Need ever-expanding lists of measures to capture all elements of quality of life

How to include them all?

How to weight them?

How large a list?

  • Commuting time

  • Factory emissions

  • Greenery

  • Support for science

  • Literary achevements

  • Support for the arts

  • Litter rates

  • Quality of roads

  • Building safety

  • Rape rates

  • Parks

  • Tertiary education

  • Education gender equality

  • Income equality

  • Unemployment rate

  • Inflation rate

  • Political corruption

  • Business corruption

  • Child abuse

  • Infant mortality

  • Longevity

  • AIDS rates

  • School dropout rate

  • Juvenile delinquency

  • Free time

  • Youth sports participation

  • Recycling rates

  • Exercise rates

  • Consumption of junk foods

  • Consumption of animal protein

  • Locally grown produce

  • Etc

  • Etc

  • Etc

  • Etc

  • Etc

  • Etc

  • Etc

  • Etc

How to Weight?

  • Health, education, equality, crime, pollution – all weighted the same?

    Example: U.S.A. Cities

    333 cities – many can be rated first OR last, depending on weighting of indicators!

4. Whose List to Use?

  • Amartye Sen; Martha Nussbaum?

    U.S. “experts” (elites)

    U.S. example: The fine arts versus roller-derby

    SWB measures are democratic -- from the people -- what they value and weight

SWB Weights and Integrates The Things About Which People Care, the Optimal Weights, and The Direction of Influence!

5. Also measurement problems with economic and other measures

  • Subjectivity in contents – GDP

  • Missed – black & grey markets, & bartering

  • Unreliable in poor nations

  • How to integrate different approaches to measuring GNP

6. Other Measures Miss Something Very Important!

HDI Robots – educated, long-living with money

Don’t we want more than orderly worker-bees?

Don’t we also want people leading meaningful and rewarding lives?

Why SWB ?

  • It is people’s evaluations of their lives – surely we want these to be positive! Democratic!

  • People rate it as very important, even the most important. They want it!

  • Well-being is a core component of mental health, and mental illness likely largest cause of illness-related misery in the 21st century

  • Behavioral benefits of well-being

Importance Ratings (1-9)



(28 nations) 8.0 6.8 7.9

Chile 8.6 6.9 8.1

Singapore 8.4 7.1 8.0

Egypt 8.1 7.6 8.0

USA 8.1 6.7 7.6

Japan 7.4 6.6 7.8

Disease Burden

  • Misery burden from mental illnesses likely to be largest by 2020, yet missed by longevity statistics

    • Autism, Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder

    • This burden reflected by SWB indicators


Is happiness good?

Is it functional?

The Error of Flaubert

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.

Gustave Flaubert

Our Research Shows that Happiness is BeneficialFlaubert 180 degrees off

Social Benefits of Being Happy

  • More friends

  • Better and longer marriages

  • Social capital: Trust

Work Benefits

  • Higher supervisor ratings at work

  • Better “organizational citizens”

  • Higher incomes

    • USA

    • Australia

    • Russia

Societal Benefits

  • Volunteering

  • Pro-peace attitudes

  • Cooperative

Health Benefits of SWB

1. Illness

Immune, cardiovascular, etc.

2. Longevity

Longevity: The Nun Study Danner, Snowden, & Friesen, U Kentucky

1. Nuns autobiographies at age 22

Expression of positive emotions

2. Happy and less happy nuns living in same life circumstances through lifespan

How long do they live?

Longevity inThe Nun Study

Survival Rate at Age:8594

Most Cheerful Quartile90%54%

Least Cheerful 34%11%

Longevity boost – about 10 years!

Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen


Happy live about 6 years longer

Predicting National Mean Life Expectancy


GDP/Capita .66.12

Health Expenditures .47.01

Life Satisfaction .76.65

Predicting National Life Expectancy

When control GDP and Health Expenditures first:

SWB – Affect and Life Satisfaction – add

16% more variance in predicting longevity!

In sum: National Accounts of Well-Being

  • People believe well-being is important

  • It leads to several desirable outcomes

  • It helps with social capital

  • We ought to be measuring it!

Policy Examples

  • Economics

    • Unemployment

  • Environment

    • Commuting

    • Air pollution

Slow & Incomplete Adaptation to Unemployment(Mostly Re-Employed, and Controlling for Income)

The Environment: Commuting

Life Satisfaction is consistently lower for those who have long commutes

Rising commute time resulting in higher incomes does not raise LS

The Environment: Smokestack Emissions

Life satisfaction

Quasi-experimental study

in Germany


1.Can’t measure “happiness” validly

-- must look at “behavior”

2. People adapt to their conditions

3. Happy pigs and happy mafia

4. Happiness is an individual affair; we don’t want paternalism

Measurement – Objectivity?

SWB measures have

proven validity









Sierra Leone3.6



West Bank4.7

The: “Would you move?”Diener Measure of ValidityLife Evaluation LadderIdeal to Worst (10 to 0)

Measurement Validity:SWB Measures Correlate With:

Suicide (individual and national)

Physiological (brain, hormones, immune)

Informant reports (family and friends)

Interview ratings

Reaction-time to stimuli tasks

Surveys in Economics

  • Survey measures used in GNP

  • Subjective decisions about how to sum those numbers

  • Subjective reports do have issues, yes, but no more than counting

    • Examples: Education, Unemployment, Eastern bloc

Objection 2: Adaptation:Life Satisfaction & Disability

  • People adapt to bad and

    good conditions

    • The “Happy Poor”

    • Happy Slaves?


3. Happy Mafia & Pigs?

  • Bad people, dumb people, etc. can be happy

  • Yes, and they can be: Rich


    Long-lived too

    Happiness is NOT the only value; other things matter too

Other Values More Important?

For example: capabilities & functionings

Maybe, but so what?

This does not mean SWB is

not also very important!

4. Paternalism


  • Happiness is an individual affair, not the business of governments



  • SWB can simultaneously reflect many desirable aspects of life

  • In addition, it is valuable for nations; it helps functioning!

  • It can be validly measured

  • It can add information for policy and individual decisions beyond existing measures

Using SWB Measures

  • OECD

  • E.U.

  • Stats Canada

  • C.D.C. in USA

The Gallup Organization would give the U.N. data for two (more?) years:

  • Ladder for 140+ nations

  • Positive emotions of nations

  • Negative emotions (e.g., depression) of nations


Well-being for public policy

Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, & Helliwell (2009), Oxford U Press

Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being

Psychological Science in the Public Interest

Diener and Seligman, 2004

“The most authoritative

and informative book

about happiness ever ^


Thank You!

  • Questions?

  • Discussion?

Societal Policies?Pleasant Emotions—Enjoyment etc.


New Zealand 88 %Georgia 43 %

Ireland88 %Pakistan 48 %

Netherlands87 %Armenia 49 %

Costa Rica87 %Palestine 50 %

UK86 %Sierra L. 51 %

OECD Nations Affect Balance (PA –NA)



New Zealand.65.66




















Czech Rep..48.50

S. Korea.44.35



Slovak Rep..41.39




More on Diminishing Returns:

US probability sample.12

Calcutta slum dwellers.45

Calcutta sex workers.67

15 Highest on Ladder

  • Denmark8.0

  • Finland7.7

  • Switzerland7.5

  • Netherlands7.5

  • Canada7.4

  • Norway7.4

  • Sweden7.4

  • Australia7.4

  • New Zealand7.3

  • Belgium7.3

  • United States7.2

  • Israel7.2

  • Venezuela7.2

  • Spain7.2

  • Ireland7.1

Lowest Life Ladder

  • Benin3.3

  • Cambodia3.6

  • Sierra Leone3.6

  • Tanzania3.7

  • Georgia3.7

  • Uganda3.7

  • Niger3.7

  • Ethiopia3.8

  • Burkina Faso3.8

  • Zimbabwe3.8

  • Cameroon3.9

  • Madagascar4.0

  • Kenya4.0

  • Mali4.0

Proposal for National Indicators of Well-Being – and International Indicators

  • Long overdue

  • Resistance – based on outmoded philosophy & data

  • Ignorance of newest findings

Health Research Funding

Disease burden computations:

  • Life Years and

  • Misery

    • Use SWB instead of Willingness-to-pay

      Paul Dolan, UK health economist

4. Optimal Amount?Can there be too much or too little?


  • Divorce rate

  • Percent in science & engineering

  • Tertiary education for all

Example: Divorce Rate

  • Is 0 percent good?

    • No freedom

  • Is 55 percent better?

    • Unstable relationships & childrearing

  • Optimum level

    • Reflected in well-being

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