Handle With Care: Using Indicators of
Subjective Well-being for Policy Making
Dr. Heinz-Herbert Noll
Dir. emerit. Social I...
Objective and Subjective Indicators as Measures of Well-being
Objective Indicators
 Measures unfiltered by perceptions an...
Types of Subjective Indicators
 Indicators of Subjective Well-being, e.g.
 Happiness
 Life Satisfaction
 Satisfaction ...
Other Types of Subjective Indicators…
 Perceptions, e.g. degree of inequality, equity, conflicts, safety
 Aspirations, e...
Are Subjective Indicators Used in German Policy Making?
 No clearcut answer! It depends…
 e.g. in governmental policies ...
Enquete Commission of German Bundestag on „Growth, Prosperity &
Quality of Life“
 Broad Mandate
 Political Commission
 ...
Result
 10 key indicators grouped into three categories (+ some additional
indicators):
 Material Wealth: GDP/head (leve...
 Subjective indicators neither in the top ten nor among addional indicators or
so-called „warning lights“ !
 Only minori...
Should Happiness or SWB be a Policy Goal?
 Idea that a good life equals a happy life contested:
 positive functions of d...
June 5, 2014, Article in „Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung“:
„The Happiness – Campaign of the Junta“ in Thailand
 reporting...
 Crucial question: would governments be able to enhance SWB
if they only wished?
 majority of happiness researchers seem...
Two Major Obstacles
(1)‘‘The influence of genetics and personality suggests a limit on the degree to
which policy can incr...
Determinants of Life Satisfaction in Ger-
Germany (Noll/Weick 2010)
Drivers:
 high income
 higher education
 being in e...
 Research clearly shows that measures of SWB are particularly
prone to adaptation and rather insensitive to changes in ob...
7,7 7,4
7,0 7,0
6,6 6,6
0,0
1,0
2,0
3,0
4,0
5,0
6,0
7,0
8,0
9,0
10,0
1978 1980 19841985 1990 1995 2000 2005 20102011
Life ...
 Observation of more or less unchanged levels of subjective well-being over
longer periods of time raises doubts about th...
 Adaptation —upward and downward— of preferences (aspirations, wants,
desires etc.) perhaps most serious problem faced by...
 Upward Adaptation of preferences: tends to result in reducing SWB levels!
 Hedonic Treadmill !  important trigger of c...
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 indic...
Some Conclusions
 Subjective social Indicatos not limited to indicators of subjective well-being
 Indicators of SWB neit...
Thanks for your attention!
hh.noll@t-online.de
References
Abrams, M. (1976). A review of work on subjective social indicators 1971–1975. Social Science Research Council....
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  1. 1. 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 Mannheim, Germany
  2. 2. Objective and Subjective Indicators as Measures of Well-being Objective Indicators  Measures unfiltered by perceptions and independent from personal evaluations 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.
  3. 3. Types of Subjective Indicators  Indicators of Subjective Well-being, e.g.  Happiness  Life Satisfaction  Satisfaction with ‚domains of life‘, e.g. Work, Education, Income, Health  Perceived Health  Indicators of Subjective „Ill-being“  e.g. Stress / Strain, „Anxiety“, Fear, Anomy, Loneliness
  4. 4. 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  Concerns  Trust (in persons, institutions)
  5. 5. 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 Examples:  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.
  6. 6. Enquete Commission of German Bundestag on „Growth, Prosperity & Quality of Life“  Broad Mandate  Political Commission  Members: MP‘s from different parties + experts drafted by political parties  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
  7. 7. Result  10 key indicators grouped into three categories (+ some additional indicators):  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- cator  Ecology: greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen balance, bird index
  8. 8.  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:  Conceptual/Statistical: „ 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“. (my translation)  Fundamental: „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)
  9. 9. 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).
  10. 10. 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 „happiness index“. 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“!
  11. 11.  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 policies  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
  12. 12. 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!
  13. 13. Determinants of Life Satisfaction in Ger- Germany (Noll/Weick 2010) Drivers:  high income  higher education  being in education or retirement  religios denomination  being married  socializing / having friends  trust in institutions Risk factors:  unemployment  low income  poor subjective health  social isolation  being divorced / widowed
  14. 14.  Research clearly shows that measures of SWB are particularly prone to adaptation and rather insensitive to changes in objective living circumstances.  thus poor measures of progress  reduced benefit for policy making
  15. 15. 7,7 7,4 7,0 7,0 6,6 6,6 0,0 1,0 2,0 3,0 4,0 5,0 6,0 7,0 8,0 9,0 10,0 1978 1980 19841985 1990 1995 2000 2005 20102011 Life Satisfaction - West- and East-Germany DE-West DE-East Database: 1978, 1980 German Welfare Survey; 1984 – 2011 German Socio-Economic Household Panel Source: Social Indicators Monitor – SIMon (www.gesis.org/simon)
  16. 16.  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!
  17. 17.  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).
  18. 18.  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 happiness policies! They’re probably sour anyway!
  19. 19. Typology of Welfare - Positions Policy Aim  Maximize Well-being, not Adaptation!
  20. 20.  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- tal’’  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).
  21. 21. Some Conclusions  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
  22. 22. Thanks for your attention! hh.noll@t-online.de
  23. 23. References Abrams, M. (1976). A review of work on subjective social indicators 1971–1975. Social Science Research Council. Occasional Papers in survey Research No. 8. London. Campbell, A., Converse, P., & Rodgers, W. (1976). The quality of American life. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 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, 11(2), 163–178. Easterlin, R. A. (2003). Building a better theory of well-being. IZA Discussion Papers, No. 742. Bonn. Erikson, R. (1993). Descriptions of inequality: The Swedish approach to welfare research. In M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (Eds.), The quality of life (pp. 67–87). Oxford: Clarendon Press. Furedi, F. (2003). Therapy culture. London: Routledge. Furedi, F. (2006). Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad. Published at: www.spiked- online.com/index.php?/site/article/311/. Accessed June 10, 2013. Noll, H.-H., & Weick, S. (2010). Subjective well-being in Germany: Evolutions, determinants and policy implications. In B. Greve (Ed.), Happiness and social policy in Europe, 70–88. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

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