Measuring Subjective Well-Being

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Science  29 Jan 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5965, pp. 534-535
DOI: 10.1126/science.1186315

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What is progress, and how should we measure the well-being of a population? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has held two major conferences on the subject, and last year, President Sarkozy of France established a distinguished commission to report on the same questions (1). This major debate reflects the fact that higher national income has not brought the better quality of life that many expected, and surveys in the United States show no increase in happiness over the past 60 years. These surveys rely on questions about subjective well-being, and it is reasonable to ask how reliable survey answers are as measures of the quality of life as people experience it. On page 576 of this issue (2), Oswald and Wu carry out an interesting test of this. First they measure subjective well-being in each U.S. state, and then compare it with the average objectively measured wage in the same U.S. state (both variables being controlled for personal factors). The negative correlation of the two variables is remarkably high—as it should be if higher wages are compensating for a lower experienced quality of life (and vice versa). The study will likely stimulate some lively debate across many disciplines, including scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and policy-makers.