“Measuring subjective well-being: an opportunity for National Statistical Offices?” was the tile of a seminar organised, among others, by Istat. Before subjective well-being going mainstream in France and UK, Italians already understood its importance. Unfortunately, such vision didn’t get implemented in practical terms.
Enhancing societal progress needs timely and reliable data that allow policy makers and the public at large to understand and interpret the dynamics of social change. While this task has traditionally relied on objective measures, subjective measures of people’s attitudes, experiences and feelings are playing an increasingly important role in recent discussions among economists, psychologists and policy makers. These discussions have highlighted the potential of subjective measures to inform about both the level of quality of life (i.e. how it compares across countries and evolves over time) and its underlying determinants.
The idea that people’s reports of their own experiences could be part of the toolkit used by statisticians and policy analysts for assessing societal progress would have appeared far-fetched only a few years ago. Today, however, it is considered more positively, thanks to the extensive research work done on available data. Indeed many “subjective” measures are already widely used by policy-makers and collected by several National statistical offices because they offer information that objective measures cannot: examples include businesses’ and consumers’ confidence, self-assessed health status and the fear of crime. In conclusion, there is a growing consensus that measuring societal progress and quality of life requires a combination of objective and subjective measures for a large range of economic, social and environmental phenomena.
The issue is being addressed by the Commission on the “Measurement of economic performance and social progress” established by the French President Sarkozy and chaired by Prof. J. Stiglitz. In particular, one of the working groups is analysing new measures of quality of life, including subjective ones (the report of the Commission is scheduled to be published after the summer). The OECD is also working on the relevance of subjective measures of well-being for policy making, in the context of a joint project with the European Commission.
National statistical offices play a key role in the measurement of a large range of dimensions of quality of life, and these measures rely on a range of statistical sources (e.g. administrative files, survey data). Indeed, some of these dimensions (e.g. unemployment, poverty, inequalities) are routinely measured through self-reports of people on their living conditions and behaviours. Various public administrations also rely on surveys of their own staff and of users of the services that they provide to assess how best to respond to the assessment and expectations of workers and clients. However, some National statistical offices have played only a limited role in the collection of subjective data concerning people’s attitudes, values and expectations, while others have taken a much more proactive attitude, introducing questions about feelings and evaluations in their on-going surveys. Indeed, the main surveys measuring subjective well-being and comparing countries’ performance in this field are undertaken by commercial (e.g. the Gallup World Poll) and academic providers (e.g. the World Values Survey).