The popularity of the concept of well-being reflects a more general preference among American and European social scientists for extremely abstract terms that collapse diverse phenomena into a single idea. Many psychologists, for example, assert that positive emotion, usually assessed with a questionnaire, is a useful concept. This claim assumes that it makes no difference whether the positive feeling is the result of completing a difficult project, caring for an infant, having many close friends, going on a holiday, enjoying a meal, engaging in sex, possessing a large bank account, deceiving a client, planning a murder of infidels, oroutcompeting a rival for a better position in a corporation.
The evidence reflects an emerging consensus that there is a minimal, or at best a very modest, relation between what people say about themselves, on the one hand, and descriptions of them by friends or, better yet, direct observations of behaviors or biological processes that should correspond with the verbal replies, on the other. Surprisingly, there is only a very modest correlation (only 0.20) between adults’ answers to surveys asking them how often they used sunscreen at a swimming pool on a particular day and an objective measure of the presence of sunscreen based on swabs of the skin.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was profoundly depressed and anxious during most of his life, failed to put down roots in any one place, was estranged from his brother Paul, had several older brothers who committed suicide, and wrote in a notebook that he could not imagine a future that contained any joy or friendship. Although these facts imply that Wittgenstein did not have many moments of happiness, nonetheless, minutes before he died he told a visitor, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” It is not at all clear how we should interpret his final verbal report.
Replacing gross domestic product with well-being removes some of the pressure from political leaders who find it difficult to improve the living conditions of their many poor citizens. If an impoverished mother in Nicaragua says she is “happy,” perhaps it is silly for political leaders to worry about her hunger or lack of access to good schools for her children.
Most Southern plantation owners in the years before the Civil War would have reported high levels of well-being. Many Afghans are frustrated by the current level of corruption under the Hamid Karzai regime and the presence of foreign troops, and I suspect that a fair proportion were more satisfied when the harshly restrictive practices of the Taliban were controlling large parts of the country. These facts suggest that a high level of well-being, or a rise in a nation’s well-being, does not always mean that the society is more vital, more productive, or more just.
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