US government (and “statistical bureaucracy”) looking to measure well-being

The federal government is looking into ways to measure well-being as a new indicator of social life:

Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of “subjective well-being.” If successful, these could become official statistics.

But as the United States ventures into the squishy realm of feelings, statisticians will first have to define happiness and then how to measure it. Neither is a trivial matter. There is even some doubt whether people, when polled, can accurately say whether they are happy…

The panel, organized by the nonprofit National Academies, has already met with two of the key figures in the U.S. statistical bureaucracy: Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Steve Landefeld, the director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the federal agency that puts out the gross domestic product figures.

According to proponents, a measure of happiness could help assess the success or failure of a range of government policies. It could gauge the virtues of a health benefit or establish whether education has more value than simply higher incomes. It might also detect extremes of inequality or imbalances in how people divide their time between work and leisure.

I’m not sure why there is opposition to this. There are plenty of social scientists who study this topic and have developed established measures of “happiness.” I’ve written on this topic a number of times looking at the effect of income on happiness, how religion leads to greater life satisfaction through interaction with others, and an argument that we need to study flourishing rather than happiness. As I’ve noted before, measuring happiness requires looking at both short- and long-term satisfaction. This panel may have to work on applying these measures onto a national scale but they are not creating a whole new field of study.

The cost issue may be driven more by the current budget troubles than anything else. If you are studying the effectiveness of programs and policies, why not include a measure of well-being? We tend to measure many things in terms of economics and pragmatic factors alone. Overall, it could make government statistics more holistic. A measure of well-being doesn’t have to be the only number that matters in the future but it can play an important role.

Three other thoughts:

1. The panel might consider avoiding the term “happiness” as this seems too subjective to a lot of people. In popular usage, the emotion is considered to be ephemeral. Instead, stick with well-being or life satisfaction.

2. Tying this panel to the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence seems silly. This doesn’t provide evidence for or against this sort of panel.

3. I’m very amused at the mention of a “statistical bureaucracy.” This might be the worst nightmare for some people: statistics plus government. Just a reminder: one member of the bureaucracy, Robert Graves at the Census Bureau, is a sociologist with a lot of experience with surveys.


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