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Measuring subjective wellbeing: recommendations on measures for use by national governments

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Governments around the world are now beginning to seriously consider the use of measures of subjective wellbeing (SWB) – ratings of thoughts and feelings about life – for monitoring progress and for informing and appraising public policy. The mental state account of wellbeing upon which SWB measures are based can provide useful additional information about who is doing well and badly in life when compared to that provided by the objective list and preference satisfaction accounts. It may be particularly useful when deciding how best to allocate scarce resources, where it is desirable to express the benefits of intervention in a single metric that can be compared to the costs of intervention. There are three main concepts of SWB in the literature – evaluation (life satisfaction), experience (momentary mood) and eudemonia (purpose) – and policy-makers should seek to measure all three, at least for the purposes of monitoring progress. There are some major challenges to the use of SWB measures. Two related and well-rehearsed issues are the effects of expectations and adaptation on ratings. The degree to which we should allow wellbeing to vary according to expectations and adaptation are vexing moral problems but information on SWB can highlight what difference allowing for these considerations would have in practice (e.g. in informing prioiritisation decisions), which can then be fed into the normative debate. There are also questions about precisely what attention should be drawn to in SWB questions and how to capture the ratings of those least inclined to take part in surveys, but these can be addressed through more widespread use of SWB. We also provide some concrete recommendations about precisely what questions should be asked in large-scale surveys, and these recommendations have been taken up by the Office of National Statistics in the UK and are being looked at closely by the OECD.

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