The well-being agenda

By Jesse DhurLex Kleren

They challenge the belief that growing economies are the gateway to better lives and argue for a more holistic approach to assessing welfare: no wonder happiness economists stand out among conventional economists. Their vision is as simple as far-reaching, though: instead of being subject to markets, people and the natural environment ought to thrive alongside them.

"It is urgently necessary to redefine social progress. Our societies are organized around the faulty assumption that progress equates economic growth", says Francesco Sarracino, senior economist at the Research Division of STATEC, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies of Luxembourg. "We know very well that GDP (Gross Domestic Product ed.) growth can contribute to the deterioration of natural and social environments, thus leading to ill-being which is the opposite of progress."

As neoclassical economics has come to be the predominant model in today’s societies, its core notion of economic utility has largely hijacked the idea of what is good or desirable for people. Indeed, emphasising individuals as rational consumers that seek to maximise their material preferences has helped to prioritise raising income as an approximation of a good life. Likewise, Gross Domestic Product, or its growth rate, turned into the benchmark of a country’s progress. Over time, according to Sarracino and fellow researchers, this limited view has led to a precarious state of affairs, compromising the present human and planetary well-being, and posing significant threats to the future.

Tracking people’s happiness

Working at the very forefront of the challenge to measure quality of life in Luxembourg, the researcher at STATEC seeks to provide a holistic assessment of human well-being beyond traditional income-oriented measures. Relying on more dimensions that affect people’s well-being is a key feature of the so-called economics of happiness, as opposed to mainstream economics. The field of research that has considerably grown since the late 20th century combines methodologies typically used by economists with tools developed earlier on by cognitive psychologists. "The aim of our work is to identify evidence-based policies to promote well-being and sustainable development", elaborates Sarracino. "This is why we are interested in understanding how to measure subjective well-being, what are its determinants and how to include these measurements into political decision-making."

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