If we want to know what’s good for us as individuals and as a society, we must know what personal actions and public policies maximize our subjective well-being. But before that, we must know what it means to be well in the first place.
Is well-being a feeling? Something more lasting? Or maybe something deeper altogether? As scientists have found, well-being is all these things—and they are less different than we think.
Economists have also investigated whether maximizing well-being truly is what people want. Could there be something else that’s important to us when we make decisions? Let’s find out!
Three Types of Well-Being
“How happy would you say you are these days?” This is emotional well-being, measured on a scale from 0 (extremely unhappy) to 10 (extremely happy).
“How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?” This is cognitive well-being, measured on a scale from 0 (extremely dissatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied).
Flourishing is eudaimonic well-being, which includes a number of different measures:
- Meaningful purpose: “Do you feel that what you do in your life is valuable and worthwhile?”
- Positive relationships: “Do you have people in your life who really care about you?”
- Social recognition: “Do you feel respected and appreciated for what you do?”
- Interested development: “Do you love challenges and learning new things?”
- Competence: “Do you feel highly effective at what you do?”
- Flow: “Do you often feel absorbed in what you are doing?”
- Vitality: “Do you feel healthy, driven, and full of energy?”
- Self-esteem: “Do you feel positive about who you are?”
- Optimism: “Do you feel positive about your future?”
- Control: “Do you feel in charge of your life?”
Correlations between Them
When analyzing the data of 32,000 European citizens of working age (16-65), two French economists found that all three types of well-being are significantly correlated.1 They go hand in hand, but only to an extent, because there are, of course, exceptions:
- House-workers feel more happy than satisfied compared to employed people.
- The average man is less happy and satisfied than the average woman, but he flourishes more.
- Retired people flourish less, but are just as happy and satisfied as others.
- The richer and the higher-educated score higher on all types of well-being.
In general, however, if a person lacks one type of well-being, he is very likely to lack the other two, too. Conversely, if he is happy and satisfied with his life, he is likely to also flourish and function positively.
Do People Want to Maximize Well-Being?
Utilitarian ethics and economic analyses rely on the assumption that people seek to maximize their subjective well-being. Is this really the case? Do people only care about their well-being, or could there be other things they care about as well?
In a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research,2 people were given hypothetical decision scenarios with two alternatives.3 For example, “Would you rather take a job where you get more money but less sleep, or a job with lower pay and more sleep?” In addition to choosing an option, respondents had to estimate how much they expected each option to give them a happier life as a whole (this is hedonic well-being, a combination of happiness and life satisfaction, types 1 and 2 above).
After surveying 2,699 Americans on 13 different scenarios, these were the results:
- Expected hedonic well-being predicted 83% of people’s choices.
- In the 17% of cases where choice and expected well-being differed, people usually chose money over what they thought would make them happier.
- After controlling for expected hedonic well-being, people’s non-hedonic motives were a sense of purpose, family happiness, social status, and control over one’s life.
Apparently, these non-hedonic factors are precisely what flourishing (eudaimonic well-being, type 3 above) is about, namely, meaningful purpose, positive relationships, social recognition, and control. If we assume that these are the reasons why people sometimes chose career and income over happiness, we can conclude that well-being—qua happiness, life satisfaction, and flourishing—is all people care about when they make everyday personal decisions.
- Andrew Clark & Claudia Senik (2011). Is Happiness Different From Flourishing? Cross-Country Evidence from the ESS. Revue d’Economie Politique, Vol. 121 (1), pp. 17-13.
- Daniel J. Benjamin & Ori Heffetz & Miles S. Kimball & Alex Rees-Jones (2010). Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys. NBER Working Papers 16489, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
- The scenarios included real-life choices such as sleep vs. income, going to a concert vs. attending a birthday dinner, absolute income vs. relative income, money vs. legacy, fun vs. duty, sleep vs. socializing, money vs. family, education vs. social life, career vs. interest, and low rent vs. short commute.