Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How to measure well-being? OECD’s Better Life Index

In recent years increasing concerns emerged regarding the issue of how to measure people’s well-being and, ultimately, how satisfied people are with their life in general. The traditional economic approach to get to grips with this issue is to use statistics related to a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In this regard, GDP per capita is a widely used indicator to measure people’s actual economic well-being and its change over time. I would like to highlight just two out of many shortcomings regarding this approach of measuring people’s well-being. First, GDP per capita is calculated as a proxy for the average economic well-being of people living in a specific country. This is problematic, because if inequality in a country increases enough relative to GDP per capita, it is possible that most people can be worse off, although the average income is increasing. Second, statistics related to a country’s GDP are a very distal indicator for people’s well-being, as GDP mainly measures market production in monetary units. This is problematic, because on the one hand, many services relevant for people’s well-being do not have a market price, and on the other hand, individuals assess the different aspects of their well-being by drawing on their subjective values and norms.

During the last years, a lot of work has been conducted to face the challenges of measuring people’s well-being. One out of many promising approaches are the recommendations made by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (CMEPSP) set up by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. These recommendations include, among others, two important basic principles. First, indices should focus on the well-being of people in each country, rather than on the macro-economic conditions of economies. Second, both objective and subjective aspects of living conditions and their appreciation by individuals should be integrated to understand people’s well-being.
By drawing upon those recommendations of the CMEPSP, the OECD has identified 11 dimensions as being essential to people’s well-being and included them in a first attempt to provide a comparable and comprehensive set of indicators at an international level. These indicators include both the people’s material living conditions but also their quality of life. The OECD Better Life Index is available online ( in a sophisticated and fancy tool to compare the different dimensions across countries but also to create one’s own Better Life Index. Give it a try!
Despite my enthusiasm to complement the GDP-based indices for economic wealth by drawing on objective and subjective indices of well-being, the latter are in an early stage of development. They still need to prove that they are a reliable, but also valid measure for people’s quality of life and, finally, could provide policymakers with the information they need to make improved decisions for people’s well-being.
Tom Schneider

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