Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

Traditions of well-being thought

There are two overarching ideas of well-being which emerge from two main traditions. These are found in the way well-being data are most often used to inform policy-making or evaluate decisions made in organisations. These two traditions have been described as ‘Benthamite-subjective-hedonic-individualistic’ or ‘Aristotelian-objective-eudaimonic-rational’1. This way of describing these two traditions is a bit of a mouthful and can be broken down. Hedonia – most simply understood as pleasure or positive feeling

The first account of well-being is based on hedonia: most simply understood as pleasure. The easiest way to remember its meaning is through the words: hedonism and hedonistic, as meaning ‘a bit of a party animal’ or as a good friend used to say: ‘a pleasure monster’. This is a recent adaptation, however. Historically, it was grounded in peoples’ subjective experience of their own lives. Hedonia is philosophically rooted in the Epicureans’ (c. 300BC) belief that pleasure is good – and morally virtuous to aspire towards. This was later adapted by the Utilitarians: Bentham asserted that an act was good based upon the outcome of the act, specifically, if it provided more happiness for more people than harm. As a result, he believed that the maximisation of pleasure, and reduction of suffering, was the role of government2.

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘hedonistic calculus’ was a theoretical algorithm. We tend to think of algorithms as a recent concern, but instead it is a term from the late seventeenth-century referring to a series of rules for problem solving, particularly in calculations. Bentham proposed to understand the moral worth of an act as its value. By which he meant, that he wanted to be able to come up with a valuation mechanism to understand how people’s actions were moral, based on their contribution to happiness. Economist Edgworth, some 100 years later, argued that utility was directly measurable. Utility is a term in economics that does not refer to the cost of your water bill, but instead captures the idea that when people consume a good or service, they do so to gain satisfaction. We will come to this in greater detail later, but much economics works on the proviso that humans make rational choices that will maximise the utility the experience. Edgworth believed that new developments in “physio-psychology” made a “hedonimeter” possible. The hedonimeter was imagined to measure pleasure through reading bodily responses. This, he argued, would allow economists a physiological underpinning of utility, based on the natural sciences3. In other words, it would prove the existence of rational choice and satisfaction, rather than this only being a theory. Improving knowledge of how we experience the world: our pleasure and pain, is one of the motivations behind wanting to understand well-being. Making this seem more scientific is one of the driving factors behind measuring it and using data, as is the idea of living a good life. Eudaimonia – most often understood as purpose or flourishing

The second account is not based on a mental state, as such, but on the process involved in human flourishing, as living our best possible life. This Aristotelian account of well-being, eudaimonia, is formed by what we do across all the aspects of our life and is more aligned to purpose, rather than pleasure4These days, many worry that Aristotle’s ideas of living a best life5 go too far: they are too idealistic and purist. In order to live a good life, a person had to separate themselves from the mundane to consider the theoretical and the scientific. This is not only exclusionary, by today’s standards, but depends on others to undertake these mundane activities. Despite the societal issues of slavery and elitism of Aristotle’s Athens, much of his thinking of Eudaimonia remains in use.

The binary of pleasure versus purpose grounds much of the well-being discourse. It manifests in proposals of how to achieve both in self-help literature6, or the role of government in reducing suffering or maximising people’s opportunities to flourish 57. The two traditions have been described as: ‘Benthamite-subjective-hedonic-individualistic’ and ‘Aristotelian-objective-eudaimonic-rational’8. As we have briefly covered these concepts separately, with any luck, they now mean more than a string of words. I’ll now break down the last of those differences (individual vs rational), although, as will become clear later, the positions are not as much in opposition to each other as implied.

Individualism, as you might expect, foregrounds the individual. This position sees the moral right to autonomy, and the importance that people make their own decisions. It involves understanding how individual people live and appreciate things differently, which is why it has been aligned with the subjective and centres on experience. However, this should not necessarily mean that people can only care for themselves. Bentham, for example, believed the role of government was to enable the most happiness for the largest number of people9.

Rationalism, on the other hand, does not necessarily seek empirical truth of experience, by which we mean concrete evidence of what someone else is feeling. Instead it favours what can be deduced via logical intellectual engagement. Rationalist thinking therefore seeks objective ways of understanding the world: meaning those who aspire to rationalism, also aspire towards facts which can be neutrally observed. In other words, how they feel or what they expect should not affect judgement. It is, as we shall discover, more difficult to be a neutral thinker, than you may imagine; similarly, the methods and tools used to capture objective data are not able to capture ‘raw data’, but all data are contextual and shaped by decisions made on how they are collected and interpreted.

In general, the data that comprise objective indicators is considered more reliable than that in subjective indicators. If we think on a smaller, more everyday scale: in healthcare, objective data include X-rays, and subjective data include the reporting of symptoms. If you were to make a diagnosis of a broken rib, you would use a combination of these data, but the X-rays would be considered more reliable than someone saying they feel like they have broken a rib. However, if someone said they felt as if they’d broken a rib, and the X-ray said otherwise, you would undertake another test to collect more objective data. Statistics doesn’t quite work like that as you very rarely go to the individual level to see how one bit of objective data corresponds to a subjective one. This, however, might be tested using qualitative research like interviews, which we’ll discuss in the next chapter. Having briefly summarised the theoretical background to ideas of well-being and their uses, we will begin to look more at data and how they can be used by the well-being agenda.

  1. Bruni and Porta 2005, 20 []
  2. 1789 []
  3. Colander 2007 []
  4. Aristotle c. 330 BC []
  5. 1967 []
  6. see, for example, Dolan 2014 []
  7. Sen 1999 []
  8. Bruni and Porta 2005, 20 []
  9. Bentham 1789 []