How Can Measures of Subjective Well-Being Be Used to Inform Public Policy?

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2007 Mar;2(1):71-85. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00030.x.


The debate surrounding the use of subjective measures of well-being for policy purposes has intensified in recent years. Many social scientists are arguing that the time is right for policymakers to extend their traditional focus on material well-being and economic development to include the impact policies have on how people think and feel about their lives. However, policymakers may have many legitimate goals beyond making people happy. In this article, we begin by presenting three archetypal accounts of well-being that policymakers could use to guide policy (mental-state, objective-list, and desire-fulfillment accounts) and discussing some of the normative and methodological limitations of each. We discuss how a subjective (mental-state) approach could be used to aid the achievement of objective-list and desire-fulfillment policy goals. We then consider ways in which a subjective approach may benefit policymakers in its own right, such as by aiding the valuation of hard-to-quantify costs and benefits, providing a standard unit of measurement for comparisons of well-being across domains, and helping to set policy defaults. We conclude with a discussion of some of the remaining measurement issues and general policy implications.