Making Happiness Count: Four Myths about Subjective Measures of Well-Being
Conal H.L. Smith
Statistics Directorate, OECD, Paris, France

The notion that subjective perceptions are a fundamental component of quality of life is an old one. However, modern attempts to measure quality of life have traditionally emphasised those dimensions of life that could be measured objectively, and have particularly focused on command over resources. Recently this has begun to change, with an increasing interest in subjective measures of well-being from economists and sociologists. The 2009 Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, has placed subjective measures of well-being firmly at the centre of debates about how best to measure quality of life.

This paper addresses four common myths about subjective measures of well-being: that subjective measures of well-being are all about measuring happiness; that subjective well-being are not reliable or accurate; that respondents dislike being asked subjective questions in surveys; and that subjective measures of well-being have little immediate policy relevance. The first section of the paper outlines the emerging consensus around the core concepts captured by subjective measures of well-being and summarises the current state of empirical evidence on the validity, reliability, and accuracy of subjective measures of well-being.

The second section of the paper pools data from commercial surveys such as the Gallup World Poll, academic research initiatives such as the World Values Survey, and official household surveys to analyse item non-response rates for a range of subjective and objective measures across multiple countries. This provides a large pool of quantitative evidence on respondent attitudes to subjective well-being questions across a different countries and cultures. The final section of the paper provides an overview of how subjective measures of well-being can be used to inform policy making. Examples are discussed in relation to monitoring progress, policy development, and policy evaluation.

Keywords: Subjective measures; Well-being; Happiness; Quality of life

Biography: Conal has a background that straddles policy, research, and statistics. From 2008 to mid-2010 he managed the Social Conditions group at Statistics New Zealand, overseeing the release of the first New Zealand General Social Survey. Prior to this, Conal managed the Social Outcomes unit within the New Zealand Ministry of Social Development where he oversaw the production of New Zealand's Social Report. Conal is currently leading work at the OECD to prepare a set of guidelines on the collection and use of measures of subjective well-being aimed at national statistical agencies and other users and producers of subjective well-being data.