Odes to joy: measuring happiness and wellbeing

30th March 2023


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Richard Lupo

Richard Lupo makes a case for measuring happiness and wellbeing

It may seem like an unusual topic for an environmental magazine, but there are true sustainability elements connected to wellbeing. This article covers the following questions:

1) Is there a need for a science-based metric for human wellbeing?

2) Is it possible to measure wellbeing?

3) Can a science-based metric for human wellbeing include degrees of environmental protection?

Positive psychology draws distinctions between the terms ‘wellbeing’, ‘life satisfaction’ and ‘happiness’, but, for the purposes of this article, the terms are used interchangeably.

There is a need

There is an emerging global megatrend and institutional desire to make the world a better place for all the humans on the planet, not just the wealthy ones. GDP, growth and inflation still dominate the headlines, but outside mainstream media, there are signs of this phenomenon everywhere.

In the UK, we can see this in things like ‘levelling up’ and ‘placemaking’ agendas. In Wales, there is legislation to that effect, while in international banking, there is ESG investment, where the ‘S’ stands for ‘social’. What’s more, transforming our world economy into one that focuses on maximising wellbeing for people is a crucial feature for scenarios that help us combat climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This is a very welcome trend, and one that looks as though it’s here to stay. And that’s a good thing, because why wouldn’t we want 100% happiness for 100% of the people on the planet?

Assuming all this is true – and there is every reason to believe it is – then we need some form of metric to monitor our progress. This will be crucial because it will allow us, as a human race, to see whether our interventions have the desired effect of improving long-term happiness for everyone. Monitoring will also allow us to identify interventions that we think are good but actually have no impact on the people they’re supposed to help.

Once there is a standard metric that we are all working towards, it will enable all sorts of other metrics, such as international benchmarking, establishing wellbeing-based SMART – or specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound – targets for increased accountability of our leaders, as well as future projections.

The metric needs to be based on science, especially human biology and the actual physics of our world systems. If the metric isn’t science-based, then there is a real risk of unintended consequences. For example, at its outset GDP was used as a surrogate measurement for wellbeing. Perhaps after the Second World War this had some validity, but now it has some very unwelcome consequences – arms trade counts towards ‘improving’ our GDP, but the wellbeing of people on the receiving end of those arms will certainly not be positive.

It is possible

Whenever people speak about measuring wellbeing, one of the first issues they raise is that they believe wellbeing is subjective and that everyone has a different idea of what it means. In fact, there is an emerging science of measuring wellbeing.

The most common way that positive psychologists do this is by measuring what’s called subjective wellbeing. Typically, this takes the form of asking someone how they would rate their life satisfaction, where 10 is very satisfied and 0 is very unsatisfied. There is still a degree of fuzziness about this approach, such as who is in a position to argue whether someone is actually a 7 out of 10 and not an 8 out of 10. Nevertheless, there is a degree of biological truth to it. If someone marks themselves 8 out of 10 then, in general, their friends will also see them as an 8-out-of-10-type person. In addition, high subjective wellbeing scores do correlate with higher levels of so-called happiness hormones in our bodies. As an aside, these hormones are:

Oxytocin

Dopamine

Endorphins

Seratonin

Which, by happy coincidence, can be memorised as ‘ODES to joy’.

Internationally, OECD countries have committed to measuring these types of statistics since 2007; and, in the UK, the Office for National Statistics publishes them regularly. What’s more, the idea is creeping into the Treasury’s Green Book, which has methodologies for assessing policy impacts. Sadly, the UK methodology still wants policy advisers to translate the wellbeing statistics into pounds and pence, even though none of this money is real. Perhaps that will change in the future.

Environmental protection

Putting a figure on wellbeing, in terms of how we feel about our life satisfaction, is a great start. But we must not forget that to feel happy, we must have our basic needs satisfied. That means food, clean air, water and thermal comfort. Without these things, we will not survive, which means we cannot go on to maximise our life satisfaction by pursuing other things, like having fun with friends or gaining respect from peers. To protect supplies of our basic needs, we first need to protect our environment. Here are a few examples:

  • The adverse effects of climate change include crop failures and crop transportation, which will affect our food supply
  • Dust from brake discs on our cars affects our air quality
  • Over-abstraction of water for industrial use produces water stress
  • Climate change increases flood risk and the risk of our homes overheating and affecting our thermal comfort.

A proposal

Although there are numerous happiness and wellbeing systems or indices that attempt to capture the above, none satisfy all of the following conditions:

  • Must be a single numerical figure
  • Must include environmental protection
  • Must have a clear way of describing what ‘good’ looks like
  • Must be science-based
  • Is scalable to households, districts, organisations and countries.

Perhaps a great way to look at the problem is using a framework developed by 1950s psychologist Abraham Maslow. His theory, which has been substantiated by later research, is that, as humans, we all have five needs, regardless of race, nationality, age, ability, gender etc. How we satisfy those needs may be very different for different people, but we are trying to satisfy those same needs. The table (left) shows how an overall metric would look through a Maslow prism.

Weighting will need to be researched to allow the combination of all these sub-metrics into a single overarching figure called ‘long-term wellbeing’. But, as a start, some mini-research indicates that around 75% of our total wellbeing is derived from basic and security needs, and 25% from the remaining needs.

This framework satisfies all the conditions I mentioned earlier, especially the one about describing what ‘good’ looks like. In other words, if 100% of all those needs are met for 100% of all the people on the planet, then we as a human race have achieved 100% happiness.

Richard Lupo, MIEMA, CEnv, is managing director of SHIFT Environment, and author of Happiness by Numbers

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