Today’s Financial Times includes a full page of analysis discussing the growing movement among economists and others towards producing alternative measures of economic performance and social progress. If you’ve already read our National Accounts of Well-being report , published last weekend, or looked at the accompanying website, much of the content will be familiar: the strong caution issued by Simon Kuznets, the designer of the original GDP measure, that it should not be used to infer the welfare of a nation; the perverse nature of the way GDP is calculated by mechanically counting productivity, so that spending on things like divorce proceedings is counted as a benefit; and the current work of the commission headed by Nobel-laureate economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to develop new measures to enable us to change “our political priorities and build happier, greener, societies”.
The article concludes by highlighting what it describes as “perhaps the most controversial issue” being examined by the commission, namely “whether to create some kind of ‘happiness index’ based on surveys of people’s attitudes”. What it doesn’t mention is that this is precisely what we have done in our work on National Accounts of Well-being. While we don’t claim that our indicators are the final word on how governments should measure people’s experiences of their lives, they certainly show how, by using high-quality survey data, robust and detailed measures of well-being are not only possible, but now a reality.
It remains to be seen what the Stiglitz-Sen commission will conclude when it reports in April. But crucially, to enable policy-makers to truly understand the impact of their actions on the reality of people’s lives, societies must start paying attention to the ways in which subjective well-being can be carefully and seriously measured. We think that our National Accounts of Well-being represent a substantial step forward along this path and our growing band of expert supporters suggests that many others are beginning to think so too.