How do we measure happiness and define wellbeing?

A couple of interesting items came through my inbox today. First, this Observer article about the mathematics of happiness highlights the problems inherent to reducing happiness to ratio (with thanks to Tiff Thomas for forwarding this). It’s largely an “academic debunking” story but I was struck that the psychologists discussed in it had arrived at a mathematical ratio for happiness: namely, a positivity-to-negativity ratio of 3-to-1 that “would distinguish those who flourished from those who didn’t.” We are interested in the concept of ratio in this project in relation to wellbeing, but certainly not that kind of reductive formula. While the article is largely about the student who took the psychologists to task for their maths, it indicates that measuring wellbeing can easily become reductive, reducing complex socio-cultural phenomena like “happiness” to numbers that then become prescriptive. That’s partly why we think the interrelations between happiness, wellbeing, and ratio need to be assessed as philosophical concepts.

Relatedly, in advance of our meeting with the New Economics Foundation later this week, I was interested to read Charles Seaford’s blog post, “What do we mean by wellbeing?” on their website. The NEF have done a lot of good and interesting work in measuring wellbeing. This post reminds us that defining wellbeing is a philosophical task; it cannot be discovered empirically from what people choose (in the marketplace) or appear to want. And policy about wellbeing would benefit not only from measuring, but from philosophical thinking and discussion about, wellbeing.