Objective accounts

Some of the disadvantages with single measures, have led social scientists entirely away from subjective measures.1 Fundamentally, they argue satisfaction is determined by two things:

Satisfaction = Current conditions / Expectations

Of course, all things being equal, higher satisfaction would be expected from improved conditions. Unfortunately though, improved conditions also typically lead to higher expectations thus cancelling out any gains. This would explain the lack of sensitivity often seen in life satisfaction data, and the fact that people who’s conditions ‘objectively’ seem bad, often have high scores on life satisfaction.

Assessing well-being without asking any questions is difficult. Fortunately, there exists a broad category of approaches called basic needs accounts or capabilities accounts of well-being. These approaches attempt to break down well-being into various aspects of life and operationalise these using objective data, i.e. not based on respondents’ perceptions. Often these are based on humanistic theories such as Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy or Max-Neef’s Needs Theory.

The most well-known example of this approach is the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). This approach identifies human development (which is a similar concept to well-being) as resting upon three factors: income, education, and health. All these factors are operationalised using objective data - GDP per capita, literacy and enrolment rates, and estimated life expectancy at birth.

Another example of this approach is UNICEF’s report on children’s well-being in OECD countries.

Advantages and disadvantages

Before continuing, have a think about what you’ve just read and consider what you think might be the advantages and disadvantages of objective accounts as a measure of well-being to be used by governments. After you’ve done so, click here to see the list that we’ve come up with:

Table 1.2. Some advantages and disadvantages of objective accounts as a measure of well-being
Advantages Disadvantages
More transparent to policy Difficult to bring together different aspects
Multi-dimensional Assumes scientists can define well-being objectively
Potentially sensitive Difficult to capture some important things with objective data
Much data readily available  

Perhaps the fundamental problem with resorting to purely objective data is that of validity. It becomes very difficult to measure some constructs which seem fundamental to well-being. For example, in the Fulfillment of Hierarchical Needs Index, Maslow’s need for belonging (i.e. social well-being) is operationalised as the number of telephone lines per capita in the country and the fertility rate.2 Another influential approach3 uses the divorce rate to monitor social well-being - but divorce rates are highly dependant on culture. From one perspective, high divorce rates are good because they mean that people aren’t stuck in unhappy marriages. Things get even harder when one tries to operationalise important aspects of well-being that have been identified, such as self-esteem. How can one measure self-esteem objectively? By observing individuals’ back posture as they walk down the street?

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