The arbitrariness of well-being measures: family mealtimes and Facebook enrollment
March 10, 2014
Mark D. White
Last week I submitted the manuscript for a book that argues that all measures of well-being or happiness are arbitrary and reflect the judgments of those who designed them, rather than the interests of the people whose well-being is ostensibly measured. (A precis of sorts for the book appeared in this article, published late last year.)
Last week The Telegraph provided a perfect (if a bit outrageous) example of this in an article titled "Family mealtimes to become official measure of national ‘happiness’." The article begins:
Eating meals together as a family is to be officially recognised as a mark of happiness as part of David Cameron’s plan to measure Britain’s national “well-being”.
For the first time, the number British families who maintain traditional mealtimes is to be monitored, under plans to expand the so-called “happiness” index.
Children as young as 10 are to be asked how often they argue with their parents and whether they are being bullied at school, including Internet bullying.
They will also be asked to share how they feel about their personal appearance, whether they can confide in their parents about problems and whether they have signed up to social networking sites such as Facebook.
Before I get to the broader issue here, let me say that these "elements of happiness" are not uncontroversial. Family mealtimes are usually good, sure, but being signed up to Facebook? The latter has been linked with some measures of happiness, and some have even questioned the mental health of people who aren't on Facebook. But this is hardly a settled matter, and it seems hasty (at best) to suggesting using Facebook enrollment in official government statistics meant to guide policymaking. (I hope you can appreciate the self-restraint required in keeping this paragraph relatively snark-free.)
There are good arguments for composite indices of well-being (such as the United Nations' Human Development Index), but this latest effort by the British government seems more like a kitchen sink approach to measuring well-being. Are public policy decisions seriously going to be taken based on Facebook enrollment and family mealtime frequency? Do British policymakers actually think this will capture the well-being of their citizens accurately enough to guide policy decisions in their interests?
Clearly somebody feels that these aspects of life are important to the well-being of the British people. This is what philosopher Sissela Bok meant when, in her book Exploring Happiness, she compared happiness measures to Rorschach tests: they often reveal more about those who designed them then about those whose happiness they are used to assess. The question is whether any haphazard collection of statistics about daily life—even those shown to have some connection to some measure of well-being—can hope to accurately capture the interests of any one person, much less a nation's entire population, in order to ground responsible and effective policy decisions.
In the article linked above and my forthcoming book, I argue that the answer is a resounding no. A person's interests are complex, multifaceted, and subjective, and they're combined and balanced in ever-shifting ways by his or her judgment before they issue in a choice that reflects them. No statistical measure of happiness or well-being can even begin to approach people's true interests, and governments should stop pretending they can. This practice is ineffective, wasteful, and—more important—disrespectful to their citizens' right to live their lives as they wish (consistent with all other dong the same).
Instead, I argue that governments should focus on restructing laws and other institutions to enable the maximal freedom possibe for people to pursue their own interests, while focusing on addressing problems that present themselves—minimizing suffering where it exists rather than trying to maximize well-being according to measures they invent.
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