Handle With Care: Using Indicators of
Subjective Well-being for Policy Making
Dr. Heinz-Herbert Noll
Dir. emerit. Social Indicators Research Centre
GESIS - Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences
Objective and Subjective Indicators as Measures of Well-being
Measures unfiltered by perceptions and independent from personal
Subjective Indicators (not limited to SWB – indicators)
Measures expressing subjective states, perceptions, assessments,
preferences, value orientations etc.
While there are different possibilities of objective measurement, subjective
measurement is restricted to the survey method.
By generating subjective indicators, respondents are not only addressed as
providers of information, but rather as subjects characterised by specific
emotional states, opinions, value orientations, preferences etc.
Types of Subjective Indicators
Indicators of Subjective Well-being, e.g.
Satisfaction with ‚domains of life‘, e.g. Work, Education, Income, Health
Indicators of Subjective „Ill-being“
e.g. Stress / Strain, „Anxiety“, Fear, Anomy, Loneliness
Other Types of Subjective Indicators…
Perceptions, e.g. degree of inequality, equity, conflicts, safety
Aspirations, e.g. income, education, career, life goals
Expectations, e.g. victimisation, job loss
Perceived risks/opportunities, e.g. risk of poverty, labour market opportunities
Importance ratings, e.g. life domains (health, family etc.), freedom, equality
Preferences, e.g. political parties, values, leisure time activities
Identification, e.g. with social class, nation, city
Optimism / Pessimism
Trust (in persons, institutions)
Are Subjective Indicators Used in German Policy Making?
No clearcut answer! It depends…
e.g. in governmental policies more used at local level than at federal level
fear of crime identification of „Angsträume“ (scary spaces) in cities
satisfaction with specific public and private services
At national / federal level:
little usage in public debate
certainly used to inform everyday policy making in ministries, like many other
bits of information: e.g. all sorts of opinions, satisfactions (e.g. health system),
concerns (e.g. adequacy of pensions, intergenerational equity), preferences…
not used as measures of goal achievement, like GDP, employment-, unemploy-
ment rate, poverty rate, inflation etc.
Enquete Commission of German Bundestag on „Growth, Prosperity &
Quality of Life“
Members: MP‘s from different parties + experts drafted by
Task of Working Group 2:
to develop a holistic index or set of indicators to be used to
measure prosperity and progress complementary to GDP
10 key indicators grouped into three categories (+ some additional
Material Wealth: GDP/head (level/%-change), P80/P20, government debt rate
Social Issues and Participation/Inclusion: employment rate, rate graduates se-
condary school II), life expectancy, Worldbank‘s voice & accountability indi-
Ecology: greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen balance, bird index
Subjective indicators neither in the top ten nor among addional indicators or
so-called „warning lights“ !
Only minority statement by Green Party suggests to include „life satisfaction“!
Reasons for abstaining from subjective indicators mentioned in the report:
„ With a view to international comparibility, subjective indicators may be misleading due to
the fact that the data not only reflect the factual situation, but also aspiration levels“.
„There was agreement in the Commission, that it is not the task of policy to decide about
what people consider as their life satisfaction, wealth and happiness. A generally binding
predefinition of the components/factors accounting for prosperity and quality of life would
turn out to be incompatible with the principles of a social market economy. In this country
every person should rather have a chance to be happy in their own way. Policy is however
supposed to provide the conditions and opportunities allowing each person to achieve
prosperity and QoL“. (my translation)
Should Happiness or SWB be a Policy Goal?
Idea that a good life equals a happy life contested:
positive functions of dissatisfaction at individual & society level
feeling good appears to be not good enough for a good life
But ‘‘even if we assumed that happiness is the ultimate personal goal, happiness
does not automatically become the ultimate political goal’’ (Duncan 2010: 12).
Several arguments against pursuing happiness via public policies, e.g.
life-satisfaction or happiness are private qualities to be “experienced through the inter-
action of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life. Mass-produced happiness is
a contradiction in terms’’ (Furedi 2006).
concerns about a development toward a ‘‘Nanny State’’ attending to the feelings and
mental states of citizens and a therapeutic turn of politics, aiming to ‘manage emotions’
rather than focusing at public issues (Furedi 2003).
Scandinavian democracy caveat: ‘‘people’s opinions and preferences should go into the
democratic political process through their activities as citizens, but not through survey
questions and opinion polls’’ (Erikson 1993: 78).
June 5, 2014, Article in „Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung“:
„The Happiness – Campaign of the Junta“ in Thailand
reporting that the current military
government is planning to introduce a
article also mentions that the head
of the junta („National Council of
Peace and Order“!) General Prayuth
talks to the people once a week in a
radio pogram titled „Giving Happiness
Back to the People“!
Article expresses concerns referring
to Orwell‘s „1984“!
Crucial question: would governments be able to enhance SWB
if they only wished?
majority of happiness researchers seem to provide affirmative answer, sugges-
ting that empirical evidence allows to identify causes and conditions of happi-
ness as well as to propose suitable policy measures
Different sorts of doubts about the possibility of increasing happiness via public
Most relevant: results from happiness research itself are supporting doubts
that average happiness levels can be significantly and sustainably increased via
public policies or other means
Two Major Obstacles
(1)‘‘The influence of genetics and personality suggests a limit on the degree to
which policy can increase SWB’’ (Diener and Lucas 1999: 227)
Empirical findings consistently show that at best ca. 30 % of total variance in
life-satisfaction and happiness are explained by variables, which are in the
reach of policy measures (e.g. Noll and Weick 2010).
(2) ‘‘changes in the environment, although important for short-term well-being, lose
salience over time through processes of adaptation, and have small effects on
long-term SWB’’ (Diener and Lucas 1999: 227)
generalization of Easterlin-Paradox!
Determinants of Life Satisfaction in Ger-
Germany (Noll/Weick 2010)
being in education or retirement
socializing / having friends
trust in institutions
poor subjective health
being divorced / widowed
Research clearly shows that measures of SWB are particularly
prone to adaptation and rather insensitive to changes in objective
thus poor measures of progress
reduced benefit for policy making
1978 1980 19841985 1990 1995 2000 2005 20102011
Life Satisfaction - West- and East-Germany
Database: 1978, 1980 German Welfare Survey; 1984 – 2011 German Socio-Economic Household Panel
Source: Social Indicators Monitor – SIMon (www.gesis.org/simon)
Observation of more or less unchanged levels of subjective well-being over
longer periods of time raises doubts about the effect of all sorts of policies,
many of them resulting in social progress in objective terms!
e.g. East-Germany: life satisfaction in 2011 same level (6.6) as in 1990!
seems as if the ‘rising expectations’ problem may apply to public policy as
much as it does to economic growth!
Adaptation —upward and downward— of preferences (aspirations, wants,
desires etc.) perhaps most serious problem faced by policy makers seeking
to increase the level of SWB sustainably!
‘‘setpoint theory’’ – assuming far reaching, if not perfect, adaptation mecha-
nisms – challenges possibility to improve SWB by means of policy making:
‘‘If the goal of public policy is to improve subjective well-being, this theory leads
to a nihilistic view of economic and social policy. Setpoint theory implies that any
measures taken to improve economic or social conditions can have only a tran-
sient effect on (subjective) well-being’’ (Easterlin 2003: 2).
Upward Adaptation of preferences: tends to result in reducing SWB levels!
Hedonic Treadmill ! important trigger of change, but undermines sustainable
gains in SWB!
Downward Adaptation of preferences: tends to result in maintaining SWB - levels!
Sour Grapes & Happy Slaves!
May have positive functions in terms of resilience, but raises problems for
They’re probably sour
Typology of Welfare - Positions
Policy Aim Maximize Well-being, not Adaptation!
In early days of social indicators movement, even their advocates saw an import
though limited role for subjective indicators in the policy making process:
Abrams (1976: 9): ‘‘claims for the utility of perceptual indicators resides not in
the argument that by themselves they can provide policy guidance and measures
of policy evaluation, but that they are a necessary part, in conjunction with ob-
jective indicators, in any adequate process of societal decision making’’
Campbell/Convers/Rodgers (1976: 503): ‘‘direct information on actor satisfac-
tions is merely one ingredient among many to be folded into the development of
enlightened policy… the limitations on policy use are numerous and fundamen-
Even today moderate views still seem to prevail:
‘‘Some argue that life-satisfaction measures should be at the very heart of policy,
but most advocates ... argue that they can supplement and complement other
indicators such as economic ones, but not replace them… life-satisfaction mea-
sures have clear limits, and provide only one type of information to policy
makers’’ (Diener et al. 2013: 521f).
Subjective social Indicatos not limited to indicators of subjective well-being
Indicators of SWB neither good indicators of progress nor are they well
qualified to be used as measures of goal achievement in policy making
Due to their particular sensitivity to adaptation mechanisms indicators of
SWB need to be handled with special care
Other sorts of subjective social indicators (e.g. fear of crime, assessments
of labour market opportunities and risks), which are less sensitive to adap-
tation mechanisms seem to be better qualified to be used in policy making
Indicators of SWB may still be informative if used complementary to other
sorts of social and economic indicators
Thanks for your attention!
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Occasional Papers in survey Research No. 8. London.
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Diener, E., Inglehart, R., & Tay, L. (2013). Theory and validity of life satisfaction scales. Social Indicators
Research, 112(3), 497–527.
Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (1999). Personality and subjective well-being. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz
(Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 213–229). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Duncan, G. (2010). Should happiness-maximization be the goal of government? Journal of Happiness Studies,
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