Subjectivity of the Well-Being Question

Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 0 comments

A young Amish Family in New York State. Source:


How subjective is a state of well-being, and to how could we possibly measure it? It could be said that well-being is a sliding scale, one where at one end, all aspects of our personal, physical and psychology are met, and at the other end, near-death and starvation, with no hope of a brighter future. But between these two measurable points on the scale there are many possible ways that one might be well, but lacking ins some of the seeming essentials at the top end of the scale.

One of the most commonly specified aspects of well-being is that of “happiness”, but even “happiness” is subjective to the person, the situation, what they have and haven’t been exposed to, and can be affected by the social and economic factors of the country they live in. Material possessions are no guarantee that happiness follows: A person can be “happy” and own nothing, or be miserable and be a millionaire. And to what extent is happiness related to contentment, rather than elation at being alive?

This article in Discovery from August 2013 outlines a survey designed to measure the relative “happiness” of 156 countries in the world on a scale from one to ten:

According to the United Nations General Assembly’s latest report, which averaged scores taken between 2010 and 2012, the top 20 happiest nations in the world all scored 7s. It seems no country is perfect and out of 156 countries, more than half rated between 4.0 and 6.0. Most of the wealthier countries did better, but it wasn’t just GDP that accounted for the makings of a good life.

The article goes on to say:

“… people who are emotionally happier, who have more satisfying lives, and who live in happier communities, are more likely both now and later to be healthy, productive, and socially connected. These benefits in turn flow more broadly to their families, workplaces, and communities, to the advantage of all.”

The study found that Denmark was the “happiest” place on earth (no its not Disneyland), and that the other Scandinavian countries followed closely behind. But interestingly the author of the article also notes “… friends, partners and people you can count on provide a network for well-being. This can be a boon or a bust type of feedback loop however, as to be part of such a network requires happiness.”

So according to this survey, in order to be happy, one needs to be in a place that offers happiness; in order to have a place that offers happiness, one must be happy. So it seems that, according to the points by which this study has been measured against, happiness of the group and happiness of the person are inextricably linked, and without one you can’t have the other.

The tiny landlocked nation of Bhutan, at the eastern end of the Himalayas, wedged between China to the north, India to the west, and also Bangladesh and Nepal on other sides, has based a lot of their national laws around what is called a “Gross National Happiness Index”. By this measure, the Index suggests that the best way to measure the success of governing bodies is to measure the relative happiness of its citizenry, and using traditional benchmarks such as GDP as only an aspect of the success. Pavan K Verma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan, in an article by The Telegraph in 2011, is quoted as saying:

“There are limits to the satisfaction economic growth by itself provides.” … “The Gross National Happiness looks at the quality of life, how much leisure time you have, what’s happening in your community, and how integrated you feel with your culture.”

Yet in the same article, the author points out that all may not be as it seems in Bhutan, and that certain factors that we in the west might take as a given have not been factored into the equation, such as domestic violence.

“Around 70 per cent of women felt they deserved to be beaten if they refused to have sex with their husbands, argued with them or burned the dinner.”

Further, in an article by The Washington Post in the same year, the author point out some of the difficulties in shifting the focus of a country from one of economics to a state of well-being. Since most countries treasure material aspects such as trade, how can a country like Bhutan hope to perform at any economic level is their GDP is actually nothing but “happy people”?

The pitfall of GNH is that we are more satisfied with talking about it, preaching about it, rather than sincerely implementing some of its important principles.”

So happiness, as promoted by the Bhutanese government is not only open for debate, but also depends upon who is reporting on this “level of happiness”. And the same could be said for many other cultures around thew world.

The Amish, a very strict and insular Christian sect, based mostly in the USA, are known to live simple and rudimentary lifestyles, They make their own clothes, use manual labour for their production of crops, use horse and cart as a means of transport, and shun the use of electricity. The Amish people are put to work on their farms and in their communities as young as 3 years of age, and continue to work their entire lives. Their education is limited to around 14 years of age, with few continuing to learn in homeschools beyond that. To the Amish, the outside world and all its excesses is a place of sin, temptation and the devil. However, according to a longstanding tradition, at around the age of 16 the young Amish men and women are allowed to partake in “rumspringa“, or “running around”, where they are free to leave the community to find out what the rest of the world holds, and to do the many things forbidden by Amish culture, such as drinking alcohol, driving a car, listening to music, and the use of electricity. Their communities base their lives on humility, simplicity and a value of rural life, the word of the bible (quite literally in some cases), and rarely come into contact with non-Amish societies. The people hold about them a general demeanour of stoic calm, and could be said to be “happy” for all intents.

However, when we on the outside look at the upbringing of these children, or the society as a whole, one could say that they are missing out on some of the fundamentals of modern human life. The ability to choose a career, or to continue an education, or to marry outside the Amish community, or to be openly gay (for there are without a doubt some gays in the Amish community), these and many other aspects of life are not a part of their tradition. So we could say, as a judgement call, that the Amish are foregoing the well-being of their people by stifling their access to things we take for granted. Yet, the Amish as a whole live a seemingly contented life, happily singing as they work, play and worship.

This is just one example where the idea of well-being falls under the hammer of subjectivity. Another is “quality of life”. In cases of terminal illness, or incapacitating disabilities. If a person is terminally ill, or so disabled as to not be able to do anything without assistance, and yet are surrounded by loved ones, cared for, fed, clothed and housed, and specifically are free from pain (as much as possible, in any case), how do we measure their level of well-being? If they are “happy” that their lives are all they can be in this state, and the person is truly being looked after, then are they not well? The person may not be well physically, but if their emotional and physical needs are met, are they well relative to the alternatives? What is their “quality of life”?

“Quality of life” is another subjective term, and is usually applied to those with terminal illness or disability. If someone is is a coma, but it kept alive by a breathing tube, one can hardly argue that they are well. In cases like this, it is usually the carers, family members and spouses, who keep them alive with the faint hope that the person will one day snap out of the coma, and return to being the person they once were. It has happened, very rarely, but usually it seems like a prolonging of the inevitable, and one day the machines will have to be switched off. But what if keeping the person “alive” on a respirator improves the state of mind of the person who demands that it be kept on? What if the person who visits once a day receives some solace by the faint glimmer of hope that their loved one will return? If the patient is not feeling any pain, has zero brain activity, and cannot continue without the machine, who does it harm to keep them there? There are arguments for both sides, and inevitably emotion guides the decision making process.

These aspects need to be considered when evaluating the well-being of a person or populace, but are so steeped in relativism that the waters of the well-being pond become muddied quickly. This is why the question of well-being is never as simple as at first it may seem.

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