Skip to content

Do We Need To Measure Well-Being?

Written by Joseph Moore

Gus O’Donnell, once the highest official in the British Civil Service and now a member of the House of Lords, has said, on the topic of well-being, ‘If you treasure it, measure it’.[1],[2] I’ve heard this slogan repeated by empirically-minded researchers of happiness, well-being and flourishing. And to anyone with a certain scientific (or scientistic) inclination, this practical principle may seem obviously quite sensible. Knowledge is knowledge and we ought to be measuring everything we can, no less so the most important things. Once we can properly measure how well people are doing, we can then use these metrics to design, test and improve public policy to make people better off.

But as a philosopher of the good life, I always found this advice somewhat suspect. Why should we expect the most important things in life to be quantifiable? Various philosophers have argued that we ought to treasure things like pleasure, virtue, knowledge, achievement, friendship, love and experiences of beauty. But these same things are the perennial objects of philosophical investigation precisely because they are so difficult to define. Great minds can’t even agree on what they are, let alone how to measure them. Yet people can recognise these goods in their lives without clear definitions and can treasure them without measuring them. Moreover, even if we can measure them, putting numbers to these goods seems to miss the point and may even diminish our appreciation of them. We ought simply to enjoy such things, not try to make comparisons between instances of them nor seek ever more for ourselves. Public policy should enable everyone to live good lives but can do so without commodifying or attempting to maximise the things that make lives good.

However, while I remain convinced that measuring is not an obligatory, or even desirable, requirement for treasuring, I have started to appreciate a pragmatic reason for attempting to measure what I believe makes for a good human life. It is that scientists will naturally continue to be drawn (and funded) to study whatever is measurable. Measurement is one of the pillars of the scientific method. Meanwhile, policymakers like O’Donnell will naturally be drawn to promote whatever is already being measured. Policymakers want and need observable and reportable results. If what I treasure is not already being measured, then it is not what policy will promote (except perhaps by lucky accident). And so, by my lights, research funding and public policy is liable to promote the wrong things.

Empirical research and public policy currently tend to focus on material or social conditions, such as income, educational attainment, life expectancy and crime rates, and people’s subjective mental states, such as affect, satisfaction and feelings of relatedness. Philosophers typically view the former conditions as, at most, merely instrumentally useful for living good lives and not worth treasuring for their own sakes. And while some philosophers do think wholly subjective states make lives good, others think good lives also (or instead) depend on more objective states or activities, including some of those goods I listed earlier.

I happen to think people live good lives by successfully engaging in valuable activities that they value – more simply, by doing what they love. I think this is what public policy should ultimately promote and yet it is not, to my knowledge, an explicit policy goal of any political body. Nor does it receive the level of attention and study that would befit its importance, on my view. And none of this is likely to change without some form of measurement on offer. Perhaps no measure can fully do justice to the elements of a good life, but whatever indicators and approximations we can muster will have greater impact than nothing.

So, in the end, and even if only because researchers’ and policymakers’ thinking make it so, O’Donnell’s slogan is good advice. (And for all I know, he may only have been trying to make this pragmatic point anyway.) If I treasure my conception of the good life and want it be promoted through public policy, I should be in the market for some way to measure it. But it might be more accurate to say, ‘If you don’t measure it, they won’t treasure it’.



Share on

1 Comment on this post

  1. The important statement in the article is this: “I happen to think people live good lives by successfully engaging in valuable activities that they value – more simply, by doing what they love. I think this is what public policy should ultimately promote and yet it is not, to my knowledge, an explicit policy goal of any political body”.

    This political goal is a part of so called self-restrained policy. The policy (and also politics) that has no ambition to advise people what is correct and what is not. The policy taking into account that it is an individual’s choice what he/she will do with his/her life.

    The authoritatian regimes tend to leave this self-restrained approach and they want to determine some goal that does not relate to human beings but to some objective element such as non-class society, planet, number of sexes, alleged gender justice etc. Such politics stops to be self-restrained and happens to be “activistic”.

    Such activistic politics (or political ideology) has ambition to be wiser than individuals and claims that it knows best what people should do.

    But no patterns calculated by the “experts” or even scientists in their offices are not able to determine what the happiness is. If we make such pattern than we automatically will have the tendency to qualify people into such numbers, graphs, files. We will want people “to fit” in such ideal theoretical pattern.

    But such society is no more free.
    The real democracy is about people who in the regular elections determine the problems and the way in which they want to solve them.

    So the democracy is not about the scientists that invent happiness or who “correct” the society.
    People should say what they want not intellectuals who just want people to adapt to their theories.

    Because a lot of things are so difficult that we simply do not know why they’re happening. So this is the real and the only truthfull statement of social scientist: “I do not know why the things are like this”. But unfortunately this statement we refuse to hear. Because it is too unpleasant and does not offer solution. And we want solutions. It is easier than to decide ourselves and to bear our own responsibility.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.