The Measurement of Wellbeing in Economics: Philosophical Explorations
Can we measure wellbeing – that is, how good our lives are for us? There are a great variety of measures of wellbeing in economics and social sciences in general. Each of these, however, faces methodological problems, and all are based on different conceptions of wellbeing, which are philosophically controversial. Is there a correct answer to the question: how should we measure wellbeing? Willem van der Deijl, PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Economics and the Faculty of Philosophy, discovered that this may not be the case. On Thursday 26 October Willem van der Deijl will defend his PhD thesis ‘The Measurement of Wellbeing in Economics: Philosophical Explorations’. Supervisors are Prof. Harry Commandeur, Prof. Jack Vromen and Prof. Werner Brouwer.
Measurement of Wellbeing
What makes our life go well? Has the increase in prosperity improved our lives as much as we would expect? What is the optimal work-life balance for our wellbeing? One place where we may look for answers to these questions is economics, or social science in general. While the concept of welfare is often considered impossible to measure in economics, in more recent years, more and more economists are using measures of happiness, life-satisfaction, preference-satisfaction, or capabilities to assess what makes our life go well.
Two philosophical problems
Van der Deijl faced two philosophical problems in his research: 1) as there is no clear agreement on what wellbeing ultimately is, how can we assess which of these measures is most adequate?, and 2) even if we would know what wellbeing is, do the measures that we have really measure what want to measure. For example, do measures of happiness really measure what happiness is?
The measurement problem, Van der Deijl suggests in his thesis, is particularly problematic. For example, we may think that how happy someone considers herself to be is a good measure of happiness. However, those measures are always based on a standard that people use to evaluate themselves. Consider the question whether life has become better in the last forty years (as a result of economic growth). The change in measures of happiness, some researchers have observed, is marginal.
However, is this due to the fact that people have not become happier? Or, alternatively, have they become happier, but has the standard by which they evaluate themselves also increased?
Similar problems apply to alternative approaches. Does this mean that we should not measure wellbeing? Wellbeing is too important for that. However, there are two important implications. First, researchers should be humble in their policy recommendation – our tools to measure wellbeing are limited. Second, researchers should be pluralistic – the more independent (imperfect) measures arrive at the same conclusion, the more reliable it becomes.