You and me and eudaimonia

Click to download the report
Click to download the report

Be honest, if you had to pick one of Snow White’s Dwarfs to run your country, would Happy be your first choice? I mean, what’s so great about happiness that it gets enshrined in constitutions and even gets its own International Day today (even if it does have to share with Alien Abduction Day according to OECD sources)? When your economy is going to hell in a hand basket, Doc and the technocrats are called in.  And it’s Grumpy and the rest of the dissatisfied who stimulate progress. As Shimon Peres said during his visit here last week, the reason Israelis are so innovative is that they’re always complaining.

But even the glum old OECD is trying to cheer you up, or at least find out if you’re miserable. The title alone of our latest report, OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, will probably bring a smile to your face, but just wait till you see what’s in it. You may think that subjective well-being is easier to recognise than to define, but that’s because you’re not a statistician.  The OECD definition “encompasses three elements: life evaluation (a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it); affect (a person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured with reference to a particular point in time); and eudaimonia (a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning).

We’ll come back to eudaimonia below, but you may be wondering how you can actually measure these things. Since the report consists of guidelines, its main purpose is to help to design surveys – sample size, target population, survey frequency, that kind of thing. But it does provide examples of measures. My favourite is the Andrews and Withey scale that asks how you feel about your life as a whole and you have seven possible options ranging from (no, not “Sleepy” to “Dopey”) “Delighted” to “Terrible”.

Back to Eudaimonia. It’s defined here as “meaningfulness” or “purpose” to life, but Eudaimonia is often translated from the ancient Greek as “happiness”, our subject today. However, for philosophers from Socrates on who used the term, the meaning wasn’t really that implied by the OECD guidelines (if only they’d known!). It referred less to a pleasant feeling than to how you lived your life and whether your actions were moral – well-living and well-doing and not just well-being if you like. Less to do with how you feel than how you act.

So what’s that got to do with an organisation like the OECD? Everything, if you take our slogan “Better policies for better lives” seriously.

Eudaimonia meant taking the morally appropriate course of action in a given situation. A typical example would be how to react to fear, as discussed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics.  Too much fear can lead to cowardice and inaction. Too little fear may mean doing something stupid through over-confidence. Courage is the virtuous reaction in this case. Substitute “crisis” for “fear” and you’re not far from the kinds of choices a government has to make and the kind of advice the OECD gives.

Maybe you think that’s according too much credit to the continuing relevance to modern governance of ancient ideas of virtue. After all, these ideas refer to individual conduct rather than what a government (or company) is judged on – its actions, and whether they increase overall well-being and conform to certain standards.

At the same time, one of the main themes of this year’s OECD Forum is rebuilding trust. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the public puts a high price on individual ethics. Fewer than one in five respondents believes a business or governmental leader will actually tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue, while unethical behaviour is one of the main reasons that banks and financial services remain the least trusted sectors .

Surveys like the Barometer also underline the fact that the people who are most trusted are those the respondents feel are most like them. There is a general impression that what is important to political and business leaders isn’t what counts to most citizens. Measuring Subjective Well-being is part of a broader OECD project, the Better Life Initiative, which tries to change that, at least as regards governments. The Initiative includes Your Better Life Index, an interactive tool that allows you to compare well-being across countries, based on 11 topics covering material living conditions and quality of life, according to how important you think each topic is. Try it, you’ll make a lot of statisticians happy.

Useful links

Better Life Initiative: Measuring Well-Being and Progress


Patrick Love

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