Against Happiness: A critical appraisal of the use of measures of happiness for evaluating progress in development

Date: Jul, 2014
CRISE Working Paper No. 79
Author(s): Frances Stewart

The idea that measures of happiness, or subjective wellbeing, should be used as the sole (or a dominant) measure of country progress has been advocated by a number of scholars over the past decades. The paper traces the origins of the approach in the works of 18th and 19th century utilitarians. Their thinking ultimately led to a justification of income maximisation as the measure of progress, equating income and utility. In contrast, the revived approach by neo-utilitarians intends to replace income as the objective by measures of happiness derived from surveys. This paper assesses happiness as the objective of development and measure of progress, contrasting it with Human Right and capabilities approaches and the promotion of justice, which also question the income measure. The paper considers problems with the happiness approach arising from difficulties in measurement, peoples’ tendency to adapt to their circumstances, and its inability to capture the wellbeing of future generations. It also provides a weak basis for distributional judgements. The author argues that human progress involves promoting human fulfilment or flourishing (including meeting agency goals), securing a just distribution, and ensuring that this is sustained over generations. This extends well beyond any indicator of subjective wellbeing. Cross-country surveys of human wellbeing can come nowhere near to measuring this extensive array of objectives. The happiness approach can consequently offer misguided policy conclusions. The paper considers four ways that authors have advocated using happiness measures as a supplement to objective human indicators. It argues that the happiness measure may have a role in pointing to the need for investigation of conditions, if the evidence shows that there has been a major deterioration in measures of happiness despite improvement in human indicators. But proposals to amalgamate measures of capabilities and happiness indicators to assess progress are not satisfactory.

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