Can well-being be measured?

John White

Well-being has shot up the Institute’s research agenda in recent years. It has figured in work on health policy and childhood, as well as the workplace, the aims of education, music education and the lives of older people.

While – as a participant myself – I welcome this, I do have one unresolved question.

How far is well-being measurable? You can understand why policy makers would like it to be. If national data can show that people’s well-being has been increasing or decreasing in this respect or that, it can be used to justify government policies or to call for improvements. Richard Layard built his 2005 book Happiness around the now well-known claim that ‘as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier’ (p3).

We have good reason to be wary of measurability claims about personal qualities. Look at intelligence. Human beings, like some other animals, but in language-dependent ways, have the ability flexibly to adjust the ways they go about pursuing their goals according to changing conditions and beliefs. It is a quality we rely on in all our activities, academic, practical, personal. What has been measured in traditional intelligence tests is something far less central to our existence: the scores we get in answers to various largely logical and linguistic questions.

It is doubtful whether the notion of measuring the deeper sense of intelligence makes sense. How could we put a whole population on a scale, given the complexity of human goals and variations in circumstances and beliefs? Yet it has suited some policy-makers in the past – those looking for a rationale for selective education – to simplify reality by redefining the inner attribute in terms of something that can easily produce a rank order.

There are also problems with measuring another inner quality: understanding. Our former IoE colleague Ray Elliott has written wonderfully about the virtues it comprises, about how it has at its best to be ‘true, comprehensive, profound, synoptic, sensitive, fertile, critical, firm and justly appreciative’ [1]. ‘A’ level and other exam boards claim to be able to rank candidates’ understanding in different areas. But, especially outside the exact disciplines, how can they deal with such apparently incommensurable qualities? The temptation is, once again, to resort to simplifications – methods designed to increase consensus among examiners, extending in some cases even to the use of multiple choice questions. Again, it suits politicians and others to rely on perversions of the real thing – often, again, for purposes of selection, but also as a sign of how well their policies are working or need changing.

Like intelligence and understanding, well-being is now in danger of measurement blight. It may indeed be possible to measure some of its necessary conditions –adequate shelter, food and drink, income etc – that is, what social scientists working in the area call ‘objective well-being’. But problems multiply when you go beyond this to well-being as such. What counts as a flourishing life has exercised philosophers since before Plato. Is it an endless succession of pleasurable feelings? If so, would this mean that a doctor working in stressful conditions cannot be leading a flourishing life? Is it, as some economists claim, a life in which you broadly succeed in reaching the goals you’ve set for yourself? But what if you reach them and are bitterly disappointed? And would it matter if your main goal were to get blinding drunk twice a day? And can I lead a flourishing life if I my goals are immoral?

In a fuller treatment, I try to answer these questions, and argue that to lead a flourishing life, at least in a society like our own, you need to be wholeheartedly involved in self-chosen pursuits of a worthwhile sort – from loving, intimate relationships to activities like teaching, gardening, reading poetry, or ethical banking [2]. Wellbeing is a notion full of complexity, touching the deepest layers of our lives. Its components give every impression of being incommensurable.

Psychologists and social scientists claim to have quantified what they call ‘subjective well-being’ (to supplement the ‘objective’ variety described above). They do this by rating people’s reports of how satisfied they are with their lives, or of how happy or distressing their experience has been over a period. But is satisfaction or feeling happy necessarily a sign of well-being? The questions raised two paragraphs back come back in full force. And is a slave (or a wage slave) living a life of well-being if she has been manipulated to believe her life could not be happier?

I am not claiming that there could never be any value in work on subjective well-being. If Layard is right that increased wealth does not go with an increase in self-reports of feeling happy, this calls for empirical explanation. But I am concerned that politicians and other policy makers might use the data to argue, for instance, that people are leading more flourishing lives under their régime or worse ones under others. We have been misled enough over the years by intelligence testers, and examination boards claiming insight into the quality of students’ understanding. We don’t want to go down the same road with well-being.

References

[1] In Brown, S.C. (ed) (1975) Philosophers Discuss Education London: Macmillan pp. 47-8

[2] White, J. (2011) Exploring Well-being in Schools London: Routledge, Chapter 11

John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education.

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2 comments on “Can well-being be measured?
  1. Miss Honey says:

    Following the next election, we will introduce systematic synthetic happiness teaching in all state schools and nurseries. There will, of course, be an expectation that schools will have a daily well being hour, and we will ensure compliance by including this area of the curriculum within Ofsted’s inspection framework. Annual well-being questionnaire results will be reportable to the Department for Education, and will form the basis for a national league table of contentedness, so that parents will be able to choose the happiest schools for their children. It is also our intention, at the earliest opportunity, to legislate for improvement in happiness and for each school to set Happiness Improvement Targets for year on year improvement in well-being. In this way our party will increase national well-being by 10% more per year than the opposition, and vastly improve our national happiness in comparison with the happiness achieved in high performing jurisdictions as measured in international surveys.

    May we rely upon your vote, Mr White?

  2. this is something which is a huge issue in the youth work sector, with a huge pressure from many funders to ‘deliver wellbeing outcomes’. Projects which are willing to orient their work towards quantifying these, thus shifting toward youth service rather than process led youth work, are able to attract funds far more efficiently. This is an issue which In Defence of Youth Work is working on http://www.indefenceofyouthwork.org.uk and is particularly critical at this moment that government is withdrawing a lot of funding for youth services, to be delivered through partnerships & social enterprises – leading to a shift in how pressures are being applyed. Any meaningful measurement of wellbeing outcomes is a matter for serious research hours – and should not be the priority for youthwork projects.

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