Benefits of Accounts of Well-Being— For Societies and for Psychological Science
* Address for correspondence: Ed Diener, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL 61820, USA. Email: email@example.com
The decisions of business leaders and government officials are currently guided by economic and social indicators. It is proposed that accounts of well-being be collected on an ongoing basis to complement the existing indicators. Accounts of subjective well-being would track the societal groups where happiness, life satisfaction, engagement, and positive feelings are high versus low, would indicate the activities that people find enjoyable versus unpleasant, and would monitor changing levels of well-being over time. The accounts would serve decision-makers by making important information on well-being and ill-being available to them. They would also greatly help applied psychology by drawing more attention and interest to important outcomes that are likely to result from psychological interventions.
Les décisions des chefs d’entreprise et des responsables gouvernementaux se fondent actuellement sur des indicateurs sociaux et économiques. On propose de recueillir des données relatives au bien-être de façon continue en complément des indicateurs existants. Les mesures du bien-être subjectif détecteraient les groupes sociaux où le bonheur, la satisfaction de vivre, le sens des responsabilités et les sentiments positifs sont élevés ou bas, indiqueraient les activités que les gens trouvent agréables ou non et suivraient avec le temps les changements dans le niveau du bien-être. Ces mesures seraient utiles aux décisionnaires en mettant à leur disposition des informations importantes sur le bien-être et son contraire. Elles seraient aussi d’un grand secours pour la psychologie appliquée en accordant davantage d’attention et d’intérêt aux conséquences importantes susceptibles de résulter des interventions psychologiques.
Recently, an increasing number of economists and government leaders have started to exhibit an interest in developing national accounts of subjective well-being. In this article, we argue that such accounts of well-being will add important information beyond existing social and economic indicators, and as such prove highly useful for all kinds of policy-makers. We offer examples of areas where measures of subjective well-being could assist policy-makers in enhancing quality of life, and we also respond to the various objections raised to producing such accounts. Finally, we emphasise that the creation of national accounts of subjective well-being will engender a significant development, not just for researchers working in the area of subjective well-being, but for all of applied psychological science.
Since time immemorial, philosophers, religious leaders, and ordinary people have pondered what makes a good life. Philosopher Dan Brock (1993) categorised these attempts into three areas: Those that base the good life (1) on people being able to choose what they want, to satisfy their preferences—and the economic approach falls into this tradition, (2) on normative ideals, such as the values of equality, security, or self-determination—the social indicators approach derives from this tradition, and finally (3) on people's feelings of pleasure and displeasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction—needless to say, the subjective well-being approach derives from this philosophical tradition. If we look at how policy-makers have tried to keep track of their citizens’ quality of life in the past, we realise that the philosophical tradition positing the importance of people's own feelings in determining the good life has been the one most frequently ignored by governments and political leaders.
A CALL TO DEVELOPING NATIONAL ACCOUNTS OF WELL-BEING
Whereas a number of individual nations and international organisations have already used (or are in the process of setting up) some measures of well-being, no nation or organisation regularly and systematically collects a full spectrum of measures of subjective well-being at this point in time. This state of affairs has led several researchers and public figures to express the need for developing and systematically using national accounts of well-being in recent years. Diener (2000), for example, proposed that national accounts of subjective well-being be adopted by nations, states, and cities, as well as by business organisations. Such accounts of well-being would track people's various forms of well-being, such as work and health satisfaction, life satisfaction, and levels of enjoyment, depression, and anger. Michael Frese, who served as the president of the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) from 2002 to 2006, similarly advanced the cause of accounts of well-being by heading a committee that proposed to the United Nations that they adopt measures of subjective well-being as part of their regular reporting of country statistics. Frese's proposal to the UN was based on the belief that both nation-states and the field of applied psychology could benefit from the adoption of systematic reporting of the subjective well-being of societies and other organisations.
Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman (2004), in an article titled, “Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being”, also argued that nations should create ongoing assessments of well-being to complement existing economic indicators (e.g. GDP, savings rates, consumer confidence) and social indicators (e.g. crime rates, longevity, rates of infant mortality) used by leaders to make governmental decisions. They emphasised that monitoring well-being at a national level will alert the citizenry to important information beyond economic growth that should help guide policy, and which can help improve the quality of life in societies.
WHY SHOULD POLICY-MAKERS CARE ABOUT NATIONAL ACCOUNTS OF WELL-BEING?
Subjective well-being refers to the various ways in which people evaluate the quality of their lives. In the emotional realm, individuals may react with many positive feelings and experiences to what is happening in their lives, and with few negative or unpleasant experiences. In the mental realm, people may judge their lives to be satisfying and fulfilling. Because subjective well-being is a state in which a person feels and believes that his or her life is going well, it reflects the many different values that are sought by the individual. Unlike economic indicators, which locate a person's well-being primarily in the material realm of marketplace production and consumption, well-being indicators assess the full range of inputs to the quality of life, from social relationships to spirituality to health, from work satisfaction to feelings of relaxation to feelings of security.
The goals of national accounts of well-being would be to inform policy-makers about groups and situations where misery should be alleviated through government intervention, to educate the citizenry about factors that will enhance their well-being, and to place well-being in the spotlight so that economic impact is not the only topic under consideration when governmental policies are debated. Business and other organisations, as well as individuals and governments, could use the information provided by indicators of well-being to improve their performance. Because well-being indicators include both broad evaluations such as life satisfaction, and judgments of narrower experiences such as feelings of enjoyment at work, the indicators can give a broad assessment of how the lives of target groups are currently doing, as well as specific information about domains where quality of life could be improved. In both cases, well-being indicators reflect how positively or negatively people are experiencing their lives, and such experiences reflect a core aspect of quality of life that should be of utmost concern to policy-makers.
Although economic and social indicators capture important aspects of societal well-being, they are by no means perfect or sufficient. Their blind spots and measurement problems point toward the need for additional measures that can supplement them. Diener and Seligman (2004), as well as Diener, Lucas, Schimmack, and Helliwell (2008), outline the limitations of economic and social indicators for assessing the quality of life of nations. For example, gross domestic product (GDP), the chief gauge of national economic success, can only reckon with monetary transactions and as such omits aspects of life such as trust, virtue, and close relationships that contribute to the quality of life but do not lend themselves to being captured in monetary terms. Care for children and the elderly, homework, and voluntary service for the community are other examples of activities that are ignored or overlooked by the GDP, even though they add significantly to individual well-being and social coherence. Cobb, Halstead, and Rowe (1995) refer to the same problematic aspect of GDP when they assert that, “it treats everything that happens in the market as a gain for humanity, while ignoring everything that happens outside the realm of monetized exchange, regardless of the importance of well-being” (p. 53). “By the curious standard of the GDP,” they argue, “the nation's economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce” (p. 65). Similarly, the whole private security industry (e.g. home security systems for robbery prevention, car alarms, etc.) thrives on the prevalence of crime in a society, which doubtlessly does not increase social well-being. Nevertheless, an expanding security industry still raises the GDP.
It should also not be forgotten that even though economic measures are typically perceived to be highly objective, this is not entirely true. It is survey data that contribute to the index of GDP, and what enters into the index is based on a number of subjective choices. There are black and grey markets, illegal or off-the-books economic activities, which cannot be measured and have to be approximated. Because economic measures by themselves are only able to provide an incomplete assessment of the quality of life, we believe that well-being measures have a clear place in policy discussions.
WHAT THE ACCOUNTS OF WELL-BEING WOULD ADD
There are a number of types of information that national accounts of well-being would add to the knowledge of political and governmental leaders in order to assist them in making better decisions. For a more detailed discussion of these contributions, the reader is referred to Diener et al. (2008). The authors take care not to claim, however, that subjective well-being measures should dominate policy considerations or replace other useful measures, but instead they take the more moderate view that subjective well-being measures can add useful information to the existing national accounts of quality of life. For example, subjective well-being measures can fill in gaps that are not covered by various economic measures. As mentioned earlier, there are certain goods that must be evaluated in terms of their societal worth to be fully considered by policy-makers, where the economic market does not provide a value. For instance, governments need to evaluate the value of public parks, but there is not an accurate way of doing so within the economic model. Alternative sources of valuation based on survey respondents’ hypothetical choices have proven relatively unreliable. In this case, accounts of well-being can help provide values by looking at well-being levels in areas with parks, in areas without them, and over time in areas where new parks are built. Increases in well-being can be converted to dollars so that the costs in different areas of potential spending can be compared and evaluated by policy-makers through a cost–benefit analysis.
Policy-makers also need to consider and evaluate the benefits of monopoly services, for example, the quality of the garbage collection services that municipalities provide or the service provided by cable television companies. When there is no competitive market to set the price, information derived from well-being accounts can be one source of information to help set the price and evaluate alternatives. A related area in which economic measures fail to provide the monetary measures and values that governments need in order to determine their response and provide compensation is the case of policies or activities that fall unevenly on different groups of people, such as airport noise or a local landfill. When a major airport is built, the flight paths create a large amount of noise that affects some of the citizenry more than others, and yet the airport is a public good. How should the residents who live under the flight paths and close to the airport be compensated for the noise they endure? Data on well-being in various areas, including near airports and flight paths, can help uncover the amount of harm that is done by the noise, and therefore provide a meaningful measure of harm that can help determine how much compensation should be due to the affected individuals. The accounts of well-being can also assist policy-makers in determining what predicts the desirability of cities, so that they can design municipal areas to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. Eventually, the competition for talent, informed by measures of well-being, can lead to an increase in the quality of life of cities across nations.
Another important function of national accounts of well-being would be to evaluate what economists refer to as “externalities”, unintended side effects of business production and consumption that are not captured by market prices and transactions. For example, the cost of production does not include the air pollution created by factories or the loss of habitat caused by the construction of shopping malls. Thus, an economic analysis cannot provide a full picture of how quality of life might be affected by economic growth. Measures of well-being can be helpful in this regard because factors such as pollution and congestion are known to influence measures of well-being, and thus accounts of subjective well-being can be used to help evaluate the cost of the negative externalities of commerce.
One essential function of governments is to reduce misery, and the accounts can help in this regard by identifying the groups that are most miserable in a given society. For example, caregivers of family members with dementia are often dissatisfied with their lives and burdened with immense difficulties, and the accounts can reveal such miserable groups. Policy-makers can then consider and implement policies, such as adult daycare for the disabled person, that can help the caregiver and alleviate his or her misery. Similarly, the accounts of well-being can identify activities such as commuting which causes unhappiness or even misery for a large number of people, and then consider and evaluate potential solutions such as carpooling or public transportation (such as light-rail) in terms of their impact on feelings of well-being. Other considerations such as cost will, of course, be considered by policy-makers as well, but the accounts of well-being provide additional useful information.
A major component of the accounts of well-being, and one that should be easy to promote to policy-makers, is a full assessment of well-being in the workplace. This would include measurements of various types and of various segments of workers. The accounts would provide information to business leaders and policy-makers on the predictors of worker engagement, satisfaction, and positive emotions, and offer useful information about how these factors relate to productivity. Where researchers now usually examine linear associations between these variables, the accounts would have a large enough number of respondents to examine threshold effects, and explore various types of well-being among numerous categories of workers and types of businesses. The goal would be to make businesses competitive by keeping workers highly engaged, but also to attract the best workers from around the globe by crafting rewarding workplaces. Furthermore, factors such as job security, variety at work, and health-care benefits could be compared with increases in income in terms of how they affect well-being.
Finally, a primary reason why the accounts of well-being are needed is that well-being is a goal in itself, something that policy-makers should strive to increase in most societies. In the first place, well-being is something everyone wants—to think positively of their lives and to feel positively most of the time about what is happening in their lives. But beyond this, well-being can often help effective functioning (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). People with positive levels of subjective well-being seem to function better in the realms of health and longevity, relationships, work, and citizenship. Further research is needed, however, to determine whether there are threshold or optimal levels, above which gains in well-being no longer produce enhanced performance (Oishi, Diener, & Lucas, 2007). In the following section, we describe why subjective well-being is generally beneficial and why it should be a legitimate concern for governments.
THE BENEFITS OF SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING
Happiness is without doubt a supreme value in people's lives. Survey results collected in 41 nations showing that almost all people rate happiness as very important or extremely important bear testament to this (Diener, Sapyta, & Suh, 1998). Similarly, King and Napa (1998) report that Americans see happiness as more relevant to the judgment of a good life than wealth, moral goodness, and the likelihood of going to heaven. It is difficult to imagine a good life devoid of happiness, just as it is difficult to imagine a good society in which people are all unhappy and dissatisfied. Groundbreaking research conducted in the past decade reveals that besides the bonus of feeling good, happiness is also associated with a plethora of positive outcomes on both individual and societal levels. Better health, better social relationships, and higher income are some examples of the positive consequences of happiness for the individual and, ultimately, for society as a whole.
In the domain of health, we already know that negative emotions such as stress and anger can lower immune strength, contribute to cardiovascular disease, and give way to various health problems. Although experiencing unpleasant emotions is an indispensable and at times adaptive aspect of being human, prolonged experience of negative emotions can take a toll on not only mental health, but also physical health. While the effects of pleasant emotions on health have so far been investigated to a much lesser degree, initial findings strongly suggest that pleasant emotions can foster health and longevity. For example, Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen (2001) have demonstrated strong association between positive emotional content in handwritten autobiographies of Catholic sisters, composed when they were at the mean age of 22 years, and their longevity six decades later. In another study, researchers experimentally infected participants with a cold virus and then monitored them daily in quarantine. As it turned out, people who reported experiencing high levels of positive emotions (i.e. happy, pleased, relaxed people) were much less vulnerable to the common cold than those who reported experiencing low levels of positive emotions (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003). The reader can turn to Pressman and Cohen (2005) for a comprehensive review of the beneficial effects of positive affect on health.
In the domain of achievement, studies show happiness to be not only an outcome of high performance, but also a precursor of it. Happy individuals are more likely to graduate from college, more likely to secure a job, more likely to receive favorable evaluations from their supervisors, more likely to find their job more meaningful, less likely to lose their job, quicker to be re-employed if they do, more likely to show organisational citizenship behaviors, and finally more likely to earn higher incomes (Diener, Nickerson, Lucas, & Sandvik, 2002; Marks & Fleming, 1999; Staw, Sutton, & Pelled, 1994; Verkley & Stolk, 1989).
Happy people are not only more likely to be successful in their careers, but also more likely than unhappy people to have better social relationships and also act in ways that benefit their communities and societies. For example, people with naturally high or experimentally increased positive affect rate persons they have just met in more favorable terms (Berry & Hansen, 1996), and make more positive inferences and attributions about social targets (Mayer, Mamberg, & Volanth, 1988). Similarly, experimental studies show that, when put in a pleasant mood, people become more interested in social interaction and more prone to self-disclosure (Cunningham, 1988). Happy people have also been found to be more likely to get married, to remain married, and to be happily married (Danner et al., 2001; Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2003). There appears to exist a virtuous cycle between well-being and socially desirable outcomes such as volunteering, ethical behavior, and interpersonal trust. Research shows, for example, that people high in life satisfaction and happiness are the ones more likely to be community volunteers and to invest more hours in volunteer work (Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). As Tov and Diener (2008) demonstrate in their comprehensive review, happier countries also tend to rank higher on generalised trust and democratic attitudes.
All in all, research reveals that happiness fosters effective functioning across a variety of domains. Happy people tend to be healthier, more effective and successful, and also more likely to act in ways that benefit society. It follows that happiness is not just a private affair regarding the positive emotions of the individual (i.e. “I feel good”), but also a public affair because it is in the best interest of societies that their citizens are happy. Happiness might not be a guarantor of productive and caring citizens, yet it is unquestionably a helpful, facilitative factor, which makes the need for national accounts of well-being all the more salient. In the next section, we provide some concrete examples of policy applications that can be based on national accounts of well-being.
EXAMPLES OF POLICY APPLICATIONS
Health and health care are areas in which accounts of subjective well-being would add very helpful information to policy discussions. Diener et al. (2008) point to the importance of subjective measures of health in predicting longevity and health problems. Although subjective health is no substitute for a thorough physical examination, it can be used in large-scale surveys to validly assess where problems are likely to occur, the longevity of groups, and so forth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States already widely uses several measures of subjective health for purposes such as locating problem groups, and these measures could easily be wrapped into national accounts of well-being. Another health area in which accounts of well-being would be helpful to decision-makers is that of research spending allocations for various disorders, as well as the spending on the disorders themselves in nationalised health care systems in which resources must be prioritised by government authorities. No health care system can afford to spend sufficient amounts of money on combating each and every disease or adequately fund all necessary research; rationing of some sort is always required. How are leaders to decide where to allocate the available funds? Policy-makers and their staff may use intuitions or even hard numbers at times to make decisions about where research dollars or medical expenditure will have the greatest positive effect. However, another relevant source of information is the misery produced by various diseases, and the number of years people are likely to live with that level of ill-being.
How might a policy-maker divide money between research on deafness, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and schizophrenia? One important consideration is, of course, the number of people afflicted by each disease, and another consideration might be whether current research appears to be closing in on a cure or an effective treatment. However, we might also ask, as did economist Dolan (2007), how much ill-being is caused by each malady, with the idea that illnesses that produce lower levels of well-being deserve, other things being equal, to be allocated more research money. In the United Kingdom, another consideration is taken into account—how much people hypothetically would be willing to pay to avoid the disorder. In other words, policy-makers in the United Kingdom who make decisions about the allocation of health care resources consider people's responses to the question of how bad they think their lives would be if they had the disease in question. However, another way to assess the quality of life of people with a certain disease is not to ask survey respondents hypothetical questions, but rather to determine the subjective well-being of people who are actually afflicted with the illness. If policy-makers take into account both how much the disease is likely to shorten life and also how much it decreases the quality of life of the patients, they have two important pieces of information that can be combined to guide research funding. After all, if people are able to live a full and happy life with a specific disease, that disease would seem to be less of a research priority than an illness that either shortens life or makes people miserable or both. In conducting this analysis, Dolan discovered that research on mental illnesses was the most underfunded because they can produce profound misery in the patient and his or her family, and they receive relatively small amounts of research funding.
One program that Diener et al. (2008) describe under the national accounts of well-being is systematic school check-ups for children that include an evaluation of their mental health and happiness as part of the health assessment. In many nations, school children are subjected to regular check-ups, often at certain specified ages, for hearing, eyesight, and other health factors. Why not also include an assessment of their psychological and subjective well-being? The goal would be to identify children who are severely unhappy or disturbed and in need of professional help. If such assessment programs were linked to interventions, it is easy to imagine that they could prevent certain behavioral and psychological problems further down the road.
Measuring the subjective well-being of school children could serve an additional function: determining when children enjoy school, are actively engaged with the material, and are in a positive mood that stimulates creative thinking. Many nations spend large amounts of money assessing the progress of school children through the use of standardised tests. What is omitted in such assessments is whether children enjoy school and gain a love of learning, or whether they come to hate the content of their schooling. We might hope that children enjoy school as an end in itself; after all, we want our children to be happy, not miserable. But we also want our children to be drawn to learning, so that they pursue it on their own and want to continue to learn even after they leave school. We can assess the conditions under which students enjoy learning about various subjects, and determine the schools in which the children are the happiest. Thus, the childhood national accounts can help us to improve schools and the education system overall, which is surely a priority of policy-makers in most countries around the world.
Another significant domain in which accounts of well-being can inform decision-makers is the environment. Air pollution is at times unavoidable, or can be remedied only at enormous cost, which many societies cannot afford. In these cases, how should the people who are most affected by the pollution be compensated? For example, if people live downwind from a power plant that has not been retrofitted with a scrubber, how much might they be compensated for the unpleasant sulfur dioxide that wafts around their house? Should they be forced to move away from the power plant, or merely compensated through payments? Luechinger (2007) found that living downwind from coal plants does indeed reduce life satisfaction, and he estimated how much monetary compensation would be needed to bring their well-being back to what it would be without the pollution. In this way, the utility company or government agency can determine how much to spend either moving people or offering them compensation for the unpleasantness they suffer for the sake of society.
Psychologists have demonstrated that people enjoy views of nature and parks, and that their well-being is influenced by them (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001). But how much green space do people need to thrive? Are views of nature sufficient or do people need to be immersed in it? Is one large park better than many small parks? Such questions are now largely answered by intuition and estimation, or decided by various other considerations, such as cost. But subjective well-being measures can provide insights into these questions. Because moods (and even life satisfaction) can be influenced by exposure to nature, the national accounts of well-being could be designed to help determine where, what type, and how much nature is necessary for optimal functioning of society.
Another domain that can benefit greatly from national accounts of well-being is the arena of economy and the workplace. How much is income related to subjective well-being? Are there threshold levels above which people's subjective well-being is positive? The answers to these questions could help us determine the amount of retirement benefits that should be guaranteed to all workers and the optimal retirement age for receiving these benefits. Is there a certain age beyond which people often become unhappy with their work because they simply do not have the health or energy to keep up with their jobs? Retirement ages are now set based primarily on intuitions and estimates about aging and, to some degree, on how much public money is available for retirement benefits. Measures of subjective well-being, acquired in relation to age and work status, could help provide information that is relevant to redesigning the retirement policies of a given society. Because of changing demographics caused by the declining birthrates around the world, many societies are going to be forced to re-examine their retirement policies in the near future. The subjective well-being accounts can help policy-makers accomplish that in a way that helps ensure optimal amounts of well-being.
Although psychologists are not used to discussing policy issues in terms of cost and benefit, and even though they can even be offended by such discussions, they must understand that this is often the nature of many policy discussions, often below the radar of the public. For example, when the remediation of radon (a cancer-producing gas that enters many homes from trace elements of radioactive material in the soil) is considered by policy-makers, one of the first questions is the cost of such remediation and the amount of benefit that will ensue. Many readers might instinctively respond that if radon is dangerous, then it should be removed regardless of the cost. But what if the cost of remediation is very high, and the likelihood that the radon will produce cancer is very low? Societies, even wealthy ones, simply do not have the resources to remove all risks to public health, and therefore policy-makers must face the difficult question of where best to spend the public money that is available to them. There are always tradeoffs, and this is why economists do cost–benefit analyses on many issues on behalf of governments and businesses. In the case of radon, for example, the expense of remediation can be compared with the expense of treating people with cancer, and the equilibrium point in the radon level can be computed where the two costs are equal to one another. In fact, this is exactly how the recommended remediation level for radon was set in the United States.
However, other factors are relevant in this cost–benefit analysis besides simply monetary costs, and one of the most important would be the amount of misery or hardship produced by various outcomes. Although the 700-dollar average cost of remediation might affect some families’ happiness, having someone with cancer might affect a family's happiness a great deal more. This is where national accounts of well-being can be useful. They can help determine the relative psychological costs of paying for treatment, the feelings of security versus insecurity from living in a low-radon home, and the levels of misery experienced by a family when members of it develop cancer. Quite simply, levels of well-being can be effectively used in this cost–benefit analysis, in addition to the monetary calculations. Although this type of analysis is quite foreign to most psychologists, it in fact recognises both people's well-being and the tradeoffs between various influences on well-being that people sometimes face. Because cost–benefit analyses are done in many policy domains, the well-being measures would add the important element of psychological costs and benefits to the policy calculations.
The above section presents only a few areas in which well-being measures could help decision-makers; there are many, many more. In fact, the measures of subjective well-being could offer useful information for making decisions in virtually any area of public life. This information would not supplant other types of information, such as economic analysis, but would add complementary information. Opinion polls currently inform the decisions of government and business leaders, and measures of subjective well-being would fulfill a very similar function. Indeed, opinion polls and accounts of subjective well-being would in many places overlap in their functioning and form. In the following section, we list and respond to different arguments raised against the validity and desirability of accounts of subjective well-being.
OBJECTIONS TO SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING
Some skeptics have argued that happiness is a private affair, and that it is none of government's business to interfere with such a personal domain and tell people how to live. This objection overlooks the fact that governments already intervene in numerous aspects of their citizens’ lives—through laws, taxes, tariffs, and other policies. The intended use of well-being indicators is not to invite greater governmental intrusion upon individual lives, but to provide information that makes governmental intervention more beneficial. Furthermore, some of the greatest successes of governments have been in areas—such as public health—which were once perceived as private affairs. Governments can in many ways provide the circumstances that allow these successes to occur. In addition, evidence of the social benefits of well-being has mounted to the point that one can legitimately inquire whether happiness is only an individual concern. Governments can take steps to ensure that citizens are generally pleased with their lives and that existing conditions facilitate a preponderance of pleasant emotions as people work, love, and play.
A related objection to national accounts of well-being is that they might put pressure on people to be happy or to act happy. The idea that people might be pressured into being happy is a misconception of what subjective well-being entails. Because subjective well-being is the feeling that life is going well, most people find it desirable. Not everyone might want to feel giggly and cheerful, of course, but all people want to believe that their life is proceeding as desired, whatever that may entail.
Similarly, a person need not act cheerful in order to have high subjective well-being and there is nothing in the measures to suggest that people should jaunt about in euphoric reverie. People can achieve high levels of subjective well-being by working toward their goals with meaning and purpose, and by achieving their values. For some people, this will mean being joyful or happy; for others, this might result in feelings of contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment. The way to avoid a “happiology” measure of cheerfulness that is burdensome to many is to create measures of well-being that include fulfillment, interest, trust in others, and attainment of one's goals.
Another objection raised against accounts of well-being has been the belief that happiness is an unscientific concept and that subjective well-being measures are not sufficiently valid. Single-occasion self-report measures are among the most commonly used measures of subjective well-being. As reviewed by Schwartz and Strack (1999), contextual factors can influence individual responses given to such measures; yet, there is substantive support for the idea that subjective well-being measures still possess adequate validity and reliability. Sandvik, Diener, and Seidlitz (1993), for example, compared self-reports of subjective well-being with non-self-reports and found that a single unitary construct underlies these measures, confirming their validity. Another indicator of the validity of subjective well-being measures is that they correlate with a host of behavioral observations. For example, people who report being happy smile more often during social interactions, need less psychological counseling, and are less likely to attempt to commit suicide over the following five years (Frey & Stutzer, 2002). There is unmistakably room for improvement in subjective well-being measures, and their current limitations suggest that multi-method assessments of subjective well-being should be preferred whenever possible. However, they still possess adequate validity and reliability to inform expert opinion about a very important topic.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Diener (2005) presented a set of guidelines that suggest some of the characteristics of desirable measures for national indicators of well-being, and this document was signed by 50 leading scholars. The document in broad form discusses the desirability of ongoing panel designs and other methodological features that will strengthen the conclusions that can be drawn from the national accounts of subjective well-being. Nonetheless, there is much research needed on the form of the measures, as well as the measures to be included in such an account of well-being.
Scholarly discussions are needed about how the sampling of targeted groups should be conducted, which will provide policy-relevant information, as well as how the sampling of activities such as work should be performed. The well-being accounts will need to include a much deeper assessment of well-being than is reflected in simple global measures of happiness or life satisfaction, although these types of measures will be useful as well. Scholars will need to assess people's well-being within certain activities, and various types of well-being within those activities, such as engagement, positive and negative emotions, and satisfaction. Changes in these forms of well-being over time, especially before and after events in quasi-experiments, will be particularly informative. Researchers will need to specifically target questions that are relevant to current policy debates, whatever those might be at the time. Psychologists will play a central role in promoting, designing, validating, and improving the measures.
The establishment of national accounts of well-being will help the field of applied psychology in a number of ways. As mentioned above, psychologists will be involved in the creation of the accounts, their validation, and updating. Second, the national accounts will focus attention on areas of life in which psychologists are often the foremost experts. Although current policy discussions often focus exclusively on the economy, the national accounts of well-being will help shine a light on other areas of life, such as interpersonal relationships, enjoyment of work, community trust, childhood mental health, and health care. The areas in which applied psychologists work will be highlighted by the accounts of well-being, and the interventions designed by psychologists will be assessed by their impact on the national accounts. Thus, psychology will go from being a relative policy backwater to a place front-and-center in the arena of public policy, alongside economics.
When national accounts of well-being are in place for several decades, how will the world look different than it does now? In this post-materialist world, we are still likely to be faced with a focus on economics and economic growth in policy debates. However, a concern for positive relationships, purpose and meaning, self-growth and actualisation, mental and physical health, and rewarding work will also be policy imperatives, and they will be a principal concern of politicians and business leaders. In such a world, there will be an overarching concern not with how wealthy people are and how much they can consume, but on whether they are leading rewarding lives both on and off the job. Governmental interventions will aim not only to help keep employment and economic growth high, but also to ensure public safety and community trust, and show a concern for the mental and physical health of both children and adults, and the development of positive ways to ensure that people can develop their talents and their character to the fullest extent possible.
The national accounts of well-being provide a vehicle for increasing the centrality and importance of psychological science to the decision-making process and policy debates taking place in society. They represent a way of tracking the progress society is making in terms of improving the quality of life of its citizens, including assessing the impact of interventions designed by psychologists. Thus, applied psychologists ought to be at the forefront of promoting the national accounts of subjective well-being. Among the different approaches to capturing quality of life, this is obviously the one that is most tightly linked to psychology, and our conviction is that complementing extant measures of the good life with national accounts of well-being would improve the standing of psychology, and increase its importance in the policy debates that occur every day in the capitals of the world. Many of the aspects of public policy that applied psychologists often address are the very ones that seem most likely to increase the citizenry's well-being. Thus, the national accounts of well-being can not only have broad benefits for society, but, more specifically, they can also further the science and application of psychology.