Subjective wellbeing: Telling only half the story.
Commentary by Richard Eckersley
The recent ISQOLS item about the UNDP’s conference on measuring human progress has prompted me to write.
Social Indicators Research has just published online my commentary on the Diener, Inglehart and Tay paper, ‘Theory and validity of life satisfaction scales’, published online in the journal last year. The paper presents one of the most comprehensive and compelling arguments in favour of subjective well-being (SWB) indicators. It remains cautious about their use in informing national policy, but, like the SBW literature more broadly, still underestimates the limitations of SWB indicators.
My commentary focuses on two issues raised in the paper. The first is the marked contrast between people’s personal life satisfaction and their satisfaction with the societies they live in. As a headline in The Atlantic magazine stated last year: ‘Americans are losing confidence in the nation but still believe in themselves’.
The second issue concerns the role of individualism and freedom, on which the SWB literature is too one-dimensional: they are a good thing. However, other disciplines have a more nuanced and refined view of individualism as, at best, a two-edged sword, a mixed blessing. I give the example of a new study of Finnish students’ fears for the future, which found marked increases since 1983 in personal fears about failure, loneliness, health and death, trends the authors attribute to individualisation.
The bottom line (as I’ve argued before) is that progress indicators, including measures of SWB, are still a way from telling us all we need to know.