The Potential Dangers of Misusing Subjective Well-Being Data - RSA

The Potential Dangers of Misusing Subjective Well-Being Data


  • Picture of Atif Shafique
    Associate Director, Public Services and Communities (Sabbatical)
  • Communities
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Public services


The recent publication of an ONS subjective well-being (SWB) survey was widely reported in the press, with most of the coverage painting a narrative of high levels of life satisfaction despite the UK’s financial woes - which were laid bare in George Osborne’s autumn statement. On average, people rated their life satisfaction as 7.4 out of 10. The picture was not as rosy when they were asked about their financial situations and work-life balance; the mean was 6.2 out of 10 and 6.4 out of 10, respectively. But overall, it seems the British are a relatively happy bunch - even as their standards of living are facing a sharp drop.

In important respects, the survey vindicates the interest many governments across the world - including the UK’s - have shown in moving beyond GDP as a measure of welfare and progress and incorporating additional measures that are neglected by the narrow focus of traditional national accounting systems. The ONS findings support large swaths of research that suggests happiness and welfare are only very weakly linked to GDP per capita beyond a certain ‘threshold point’ (which developed countries have reached). People seemingly value the strength of their personal relationships far more than the weight of their possessions.

But just as it has been wrong - both normatively and factually - to exclusively associate GDP with general welfare, so it would be wrong to award subjective well-being the same status. This is why many, including the new economics foundation (nef), argue that both ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ indicators are necessary to get a complete picture of national well-being. The Economist Unit’s ‘quality of life index’ is one example of combining subjective well-being data with objective quality of life indicators such as material well-being, health, political stability, job security, family life, community life, climate and geography, political freedom and gender equality.

Morever, some important limitations of subjective well-being approaches point to the dangers of viewing SWB in isolation, especially in the context of policymaking. The first issue is whether ‘happiness’ should be considered the most important goal in life. As Amartya Sen argues, while happiness is an essential component of a ‘good life,’ there may be more important goals; such as rights, freedom, and justice (Bruni and Porta 2007: xxxiii). This is especially so given the well-founded concern that self-reported happiness and life satisfaction may often reflect social conditioning, rather than genuine well-being: 

Consider a very deprived person who is poor, exploited, overworked and ill, but who has been made satisfied with his lot by social conditioning (through, say, religion, political propaganda, or cultural pressure). Can we possibly believe that he is doing well just because he is happy and satisfied? Can the living standard of a person be high if the life that he or she leads is full of deprivation? The standard of life cannot be so detached from the nature of the life the person leads. (Sen 1991: 7-8).

But this isn’t just a problem of a socially-produced “false consciousness” (to borrow a Marxist term). It is also a reflection of the complex and often contradictory systems of human cognitive affect and motivation. For example, one study found that over 80% of young people were satisfied with their lives - despite the fact that 50% were experiencing one or more health problems and mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. Deaton’s study (2008) on life satisfaction and health outcomes also found that HIV prevalence seemingly had little or no effect on the segment of the population that reported dissatisfaction with their health.

Adler and Posner (2008: s265) make a good point: SWB is less an individual’s objective assessment of the extent to which their preferences are being satisfied, and more a product of their mood and affect. It can also be influenced by habituation, denial, self-illusion, rationalisation and mitigation. The contradictions may also reflect a coping-mechanism and a means to project an outward ‘public’ appearance of self-confidence and normality in order to adhere to social norms and pressures, even if ‘privately’ many individuals experience depression, anxiety, and health problems.

Moreover, as Robert Frank also points out, psychologists have shown that the core goal of human motivational systems is not happiness, but to help secure successful life outcomes:

The purpose of the human motivational system, according to psychologists, is not to make people feel happy, but rather to motivate actions that promote successful life outcomes. To be effective, this system should be flexible and adaptive, which it is. For example, people who become disabled typically experience deep depression after their accidents, but often adapt surprisingly quickly, soon reporting a mix of moods similar to what they had experienced before. Lottery winners invariably experience joy on receiving their windfalls, but often describe such feelings as fleeting.

This phenomenon of adaptation has been widely reported (Diener, Lucas & Scollon 2006; Wilson & Gilbert 2003). It underscores the potentially precarious relationship between self-reported happiness and actual welfare. For example, Frank points out that many well-adjusted paraplegics with high levels of happiness would nevertheless go through life-threatening surgery if it guaranteed the restoration of their mobility. Similarly, even if people may have adapted to income levels, or poor health, poverty and other objective factors, this by no means implies the latter are not connected to their welfare.

It is for these reasons that subjective well-being on its own is an inadequate metric of welfare. Seeing it as such can have detrimental policy implications. For example, if governments solely used life satisfaction data to guide policy, they would come to the dubious conclusion that HIV or other serious health conditions were unimportant and not connected to wellbeing. Similarly, with particular relevance our current Government, decisionmakers might use SWB data to rationalise the continuation of fiscal and economic policies that harm standards of living and worsen financial hardship (‘objective’ factors of quality of life). Other key goals, such as freedom, justice and rights, may also potentially be subverted. Nation-wide mean measurements might also risk marginalising the experiences of minority groups and socially excluded individuals and groups of people that aren’t captured by national averages.

This is not to deny the value of subjective well-being. The happiness and subjective experiences of people can be vital elements of measuring welfare and progress beyond narrow GDP measures. But subjective well-being must be just one component of welfare - other ‘objective’ (health, job security, education, etc.) and ‘normative’ (freedom, justice, rights, equality etc.) factors must also be taken into account in equal measure.



Bruni, Luigino and Pier Luigi Porta. (2007). 'Introduction'. In Luigino Bruni and Pier Luigi Porta, eds. Handbook on the Economics of Happiness. (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar)

Deaton, A. (2008) 'Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll', Journal of Economic Perspectives 22(2): 53-72.

Diener, E., Lucas, R., & Scollon, C.N. (2006). 'Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being'. American Psychologist, 61, 305–314.

Sen, Amartya. (1991). The Standard of Living, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press)

Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2003). 'Affective forecasting' in M.P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 35). (San Diego, CA: Academic Press)

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