National Policy on Well-Being

In 2004, Martin Seligman and I wrote that nations need to track more than economic indicators to gauge the well-being of people (Diener & Seligman, 2004) and that organizations and governments should adopt policies that broadly enhance quality of life. I am pleased to report that we have made significant progress in this endeavor, with attention from many policy makers at national and international levels. Hopefully, more will occur over the next several years.  The following is a brief summary of recent developments.

Last year, I spoke at a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which publishes statistics on approximately 30 of the world’s most economically developed nations. The OECD publishes a large number of statistics for member nations, including many on economic indicators. This organization is now moving ahead with plans to add measures of well-being to their database and is examining which measures might be appropriate for their reports. The OECD organizes a large amount of data on member nations, and the inclusion of well-being variables could prove to be very helpful.

I also recently spoke at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. There are many arms to the CDC, but my talk was of most interest to the CDC personnel working in health promotion and chronic disease prevention. My talk was warmly received there, in part, because I believe the CDC sees the close connection between subjective well-being and physical health. A public health group at the CDC is planning on using well-being measures in upcoming surveys conducted by the CDC. One finding I presented in my talk at the CDC was that people’s average moods in nations are a better predictor of whether they report health problems than is their objective health as indicated by life expectancy. This finding is important to those in the health care field because it suggests that unhappy people feel that they have more health problems, even controlling for objective health.

Another finding I presented at the CDC is that the Cantril’s Ladder of Life scores for nations, which capture people’s global judgment about how well they are doing in life, are a better predictor of life expectancy than either average income or health care expenditures. These and other data suggest that well-being not only follows from good physical health, it influences physical health. Such findings are especially important because medical costs are rising so quickly that they will soon represent a very serious drain on society, perhaps even an unsustainable drain.

In a presidential debate last fall, Barack Obama spoke of the rapidly rising health care costs in the United States and the need for more work on prevention and health promotion. Findings on well-being are of particular interest to those interested in health promotion as providing a new lever for them to promote health and reduce medical costs. CDC personnel peppered me with questions about interventions to increase well-being, but this is not my area of expertise. And so I leave it to you applied psychological scientists out there to create the interventions that can increase well-being at societal levels.

The use of well-being measures is spreading internationally as well. In the European Union biennial survey, a group of behavioral scientists led by Felicia Huppert in the United Kingdom designed a large number of well-being questions, including both subjective well-being and psychological well-being, derived from theories including Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory and the work of Carol Ryff. Statistics Canada is routinely including a life satisfaction measure as part of their surveys. Richard Lucas, Ulrich Schimmack, John Helliwell, and I have a book coming out early in 2009, entitled Well-Being Measures for Policy, and I hope this volume will also spur even more interest in the field.

The United Kingdom is a hotbed of activity on the measurement of well-being, where environmental and other groups have pushed the well-being agenda with policy makers. For example, Lord Richard Layard, an economist and member of the House of Lords, has been working for the implementation of well-being measures for adolescents. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been offering the service of contracting out to collect well-being measures for various organizations, and this work has grown for them at a lightning pace.

In October 2008, I spoke with statisticians and economists at the United Nations in New York City about the possibility of their publication of summary well-being data for nations, taken from the Gallup World Poll. Individuals who create the U.N.’s Human Development Report and other statisticians at the U.N showed interest in this idea. There is a distinct possibility that they will include well-being numbers in their 2010 decennial report, and this is an important foot-in-the-door for well-being measures at the U.N. There are competing conceptions of the well-being that are influential at the U.N., such as the economist Amartya Sen’s Capabilities and Functionings approach, but I think it is likely that the U.N. will be amenable to a multi-pronged approach to defining and measuring well-being. The Gallup Organization has generously agreed to provide the U.N. with national statistics for two years of the World Poll, and this will provide variables such as life satisfaction, work and financial satisfaction, trust and social support variables, and affect (positive and negative emotions).

Thus, I am pleased to report that we have made real progress. At the same time, there are several important challenges. One is to ensure that the well-being measures are included on an ongoing basis in large surveys. Also, we must work to ensure that the results of the surveys can be broken down by demographic, ethnic, regional, and other groupings to be most useful to policy makers. Yet another important task is to explore how well-being influences, and does not influence, physical health and work productivity, both topics of enormous interest to policy makers. Perhaps the biggest challenge is up to all of you out there: creating interventions to increase well-being when our measures show that problems exist. My contacts with the various organizations described above indicate that they are now open to behavioral interventions and that they are even enthusiastic about their promise. Therefore, we need to work hard and fast to create and test policy-relevant interventions.

A number of reservations have been raised about using well-being measures to assess the quality of life of societies. In our upcoming book, Richard Lucas, Ulrich Schimmack, John Helliwell, and I show that the worries are largely unfounded. Furthermore, as my popular book co-authored with my son reveals, well-being is not simply a desirable outcome for its own sake, but it tends to be associated with health and longevity, high income and good citizenship, strong social relationships, societal trust and cooperation, and pro-peace attitudes.

Accounts of well-being have the potential of helping many areas of psychology. To the extent that psychological scientists have findings that can improve human well-being, the accounts of well-being are a tool for furthering this work because they can reveal the beneficial outcomes that we produce. We are in a state where the economy strongly rules policy discussions, and the accounts of well-being can provide a broader perspective for policy makers to consider, one which can enhance the importance of the work we all do. ♦

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