Daniel Kahneman: ‘Well-being can’t be defined by a single measurement’

I saw Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, in conversation with Lord Richard Layard at the LSE this evening. I’ll write a longer piece this Friday, but it was interesting to note his take on whether and how governments can measure well-being.

He was effusively introduced by Layard as ‘the leader of the well-being movement’, and the man who had first inspired Layard to believe economists could measure well-being. But he himself was surprisingly cautious and pessimistic about the whole national well-being measurement project. He said:

There are many different ways of achieving well-being. How you compare those different approaches on a scale is something I don’t know. If well-being is truly multi-dimensional, then policy-makers will have to make judgement calls. It’s a value judgement which aspect of well-being you decide is more important.

That’s a very important point, and one that I’ve tried to make as well. Your definition of well-being involves value judgements and moral judgements. Someone who believes in God, for example, will have a different definition of well-being to someone who doesn’t. Likewise, one person’s definition of well-being might emphasize feeling good, while another’s would emphasize doing good.

And yet our government has very eagerly embraced the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘science of well-being’ – in other words, that we can arrive at a value-free definition of well-being, which because it is value-free, governments can simply impose on their populations without a vote or any ethical debate. This is a real mistake.

So, I asked Kahneman, has the British government been hasty in embracing one particular definition (a utilitarian definition) of well-being that we all have to accept and fit into? He replied:

It’s a matter of temperament. Your government is full of optimists like Richard Layard. I’m more pessimistic. If I was doing it, we’d be waiting a long time before we made any decisions. There will be trade offs, and I have no idea how you’d assess the trade offs. And I find the idea of a single measurement of well-being very complicated.

He was also pessimistic about how much governments can do to lift national well-being levels (however they define it). He said:

We should know that the levers of policy that are available to governments are not going to make a huge difference. The impacts will be small and local. The main factor for our individual well-being is heritability. We can train people to be slightly happier, but only to some extent. I am more focused on reducing misery than promoting happiness.

So the ‘leader of the well-being movement’ is very sceptical about attempts to collapse well-being into one index measurement, and sceptical about policy-makers’ hopes that such an index could help governments have a major impact on our happiness levels.

Why is it British journalists and policy makers always fawn so helplessly over every visiting American psychologist (Martin Seligman, Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Goleman) and fall over themselves to turn their latest ideas into policy? We’re like a banana republic, handing over the keys to government to any foreigner with a book deal and a fancy job title. ‘You are from Ivy League college? Wow, is great. Please to write us constitution, yes?’

Kahneman is far more humble and cautious than others – but the likes of Seligman, Thaler, Goleman and David Brooks have barely cleared customs before they’re having a major impact on British policy. Whatever happened to British pragmatism, caution, and awareness of the limits of government?


  • What's the link between 'well-being' and virtue ethics ?

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi John

    There are many ways you can define well-being, but often theorists have contrasted a hedonic definition of well-being (ie feeling good) with a eudaimonic definition – of being fulfilled and having achieved more meaningful life satisfaction.

    The eudaimonic definition is typically traced back to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, where he defines eudaimonia as virtuous activity + various external goods such as health and a family.

    All best


  • Greg Linster says:

    Great post, Jules! I'm looking forward to reading Kahneman's new book and I'm excited to hear that you even got to ask him a question :)


  • Terry says:

    Would it be better to focus on 'contentment' rather than 'happiness'? I think contentment can be maintained throughout life's ups and downs, where as happiness can only be experienced in relation to unhappiness.


  • New poster here. I just stumbled on this blog, and I'm refreshed that you are critical of the Emotional Intelligence movement and the drive to measure happiness in general.

    I'm from America and when the Goleman book first came out in the mid-1990's, I saw the same near-universal, uncritical acceptance of its ideas, and I became worried– mainly because I was concerned about how employers and others would attempt to measure my EQ. Talk about an intrusion on one's private decisions! And talk about pressure to see one's relationships, even every casual social encounter, as a proving ground for your social abilities– a most unhealthy way to look at relationships, and something that causes more social awkwardness, not less.

    As for your answer as to why the British suspended their normal skepticism when it came to these ideas? I think it's precisely because they are couched as science. Because our dissent is removed in one stroke: after all, you can't argue with science, unless you want to give yourself a reputation as a delusional crank.

    Thank you for giving a way to argue with this hitherto non-refutable science: by pointing out the real lack of scientific heft and the moral judgment dressed up as research. I think the real way it could hurt others is sufficient– for starters, I think it's worsened the unemployment picture by giving employers a new justification for disregarding a worker's skills and cognitive abilities– but I know for most people this may not be enough. Thank you for another angle of attack.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks Lucy

    Yes, it can get a bit coercive – demanding you fit into a particular box of 'normal'. And its mainly based on psychometric tests, which are, in my experience, incredibly wrong: I took some of those tests to tell me what A-Levels to do, and it gave me terrible advice (drop English and Politics, do Geography and Biology).

    Anyway, here is something I wrote on Emotional Intelligence and Goleman's book – which got turned into a subject here in British schools, if you can believe that:


    All best


  • Jules:

    I did read that– and it makes me wonder: has SEAL been contributing to the upswing in autism spectrum cases?

    I have an opinion of autism most would probably find controversial: I believe the milder forms such as Asperger's are more cultural construct than we think. The fact is that most of our jobs that we have not outsourced require lots of social and public contact; and the finance industry in particular, which has so dominated both American and British culture, puts a premium on charismatic salesmanship and even personal mysticism. We are called upon to make ourselves more and more extraordinary people, just to meet the base level of employability.

    It's not surprising to me at all now that Andrew Wakefield, the infamous "vaccines cause autism" doctor, is British. Because UK society likely fears autism more than any other.

    Because it looks like kids and their parents are effectively taught in SEAL and other EI programs to fear any social awkwardness– which we all feel from time to time, and which can only be exacerbated in an environment where the child knows every one of their emotional responses could be held against them; but which Goleman, Layard and company in their zeal seem to have either forgotten about, or chosen not to care.

    I saw some statistic where 70 percent of autistic-spectrums still live at home with their parents into adulthood? Where less than half are employed, and almost none have professional careers?

    Accurate or not, those stats are frightening… and mean that people deemed to be failing SEAL are effectively made into second-class citizens, because most of us believe that you can't teach a good personality or attitude.

    No parent wants their child to be slapped with the new scarlet letter of an autism spectrum diagnosis– a label than can mean a total failure, at humanity, love, friendship and just about everything that makes human life worthwhile. No parent wants their child to grow up to never amount to anything, to possibly never have a career or even be accepted to college/university. No parent wants to watch everything else their child brings of themselves to the table– intelligence, hard work, determation, sense of humor– ignored because they don't meet SEAL's (or Seligman's) metric. Again, accurate or not, that's the specter they're being presented with. A feeling of total, inescapable inadequacy. Damnation in perpetuity.

  • Jules Evans says:

    You're right in so far as such 'emotional intelligence' courses tend to create a dichotomy between being very socially skilled and emotionally open (which is GOOD) and being more closed off and less emotionally open (which is BAD, and possibly autistic).

    Its a way of thinking designed by pop psychologists and social workers, and it is quite divorced from the real world, where i know a lot of people who are very very successful yet hate the idea of talking about their feelings.

    There are all kinds of models for flourishing, and not all of them involve sitting in a circle and 'sharing'.

    Did your employer force you to go through some 'emotional intelligence' training course? Email me if so, Id like to hear more about it: londonstoic@yahoo.com

    all best


  • No, so far I've been lucky enough to not have my employer force an "emotional intelligence" course on me, but I am waiting for the day when it comes, especially if I find myself up for a promotion. I think the healthiest thing to do if/when that happens, is to be a chameleon and tell them what they want to hear.

    Emotional intelligence tests are teaching us that in certain circumstances, lying is a justified survival skill.

    In the States, many retailers are fond of using a psychometric called "Unicru" to assess people before they even get a foot in the door.

    And of course, I've always wondered: once you fail a psychometric, are you forever locked out from that particular company? What about all other companies belonging to the same parent company– is your name mud with them as well because they share personnel, and people talk to each other? And do they share your psychometric information with other firms?

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks Lucy, I hadn't heard of Unicru. I think any company worth working for probably / hopefully doesn't use such silly technology.

    I dont think it is something to get too concerned about though – the questions are always incredibly obvious, its easy to recognise the answers they want you to give.

    Yes, youre right – sadly, what these things teach is 'Machiavellian intelligence', not genuine compassion or virtue.

  • [I] know a lot of people who are very very successful yet hate the idea of talking about their feelings.

    That's the irony of these mesaurements: they are likely to make us less willing to talk about our feelings. Because we fear that what we say could be used against us, could be used to deny us opportunities in the present or in the future. And in the name of our mental health, too; so we feel like we don't have a right to protest. Because who wants to begrudge someone's caring about us?

    Our feelings are precious and expressing them to the wrong people frequently means they are abused. Assurance that our feelings will be handled with respect, and not used to take from us the truest freedom of all– the freedom to choose who we want to be, any time, any place– is an absolute prerequisite for us freely sharing them.

    I can say with confidence that my own social anxiety is almost entirely caused by knowing my well-being will be measured, evaluated and judged. Social comfort comes from knowing that despite your mistakes, you will be free from harsh consequences to your reputation, livelihood, or capacity to reinvent yourself.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Do you actually have social anxiety? I used to. I mean, I was diagnosed as suffering from social anxiety. And that manifested as an acute discomfort at the thought of being evaluated and judged for my 'social performance'.

    You said: 'I can say with confidence that my own social anxiety is almost entirely caused by knowing my well-being will be measured, evaluated and judged.'

    I would suggest your social anxiety is almost entirely caused by the fact that you CARE, too much, at the thought of other people measuring, evaluating and judging you.

    The fact is, people always will evaluate and judge you, your whole life, same as we evaluate and judge everyone else we meet. We can't control that.

    We can, however, control how much we care about other people's judgements.

    Also – who can take away your freedom to choose who you want to be?

    Social anxiety is a state where we feel excessively and dangerously dependent on the goodwill of others, and terrified of losing that good will. But that is to underestimate ourselves, and the extent to which (a) we are likeable and (b) we can do things for ourselves regardless of how others perceive us.

    Thats what I believe, now, anyway. But maybe you didn't mean 'clinical social anxiety', which is what I had.

    All best


  • No, I was never actually diagnosed with social anxiety. But that feeling of being dependent on the goodwill of others is exactly what I feel… because I can't see how I am not dependent on others' goodwill to become who I want to be.

    Increasingly, we are dependent on employers liking us to even be able to make a living. That's probably the most dangerous thing about the emotional intelligence movement.

    Also, we become who we are in large part through our relationships. We can't learn to be a good lover or marriage partner, for instance, from theory. We have to practice being one in everyday life. Which means someone else has to cooperate with us, to even have the opportunity to get that practice.

    Just about everything in life that has a social context requires that others cooperate with us. In the case of sex, enthusiastic consent is a must for both mutual respect and enjoyment.

    Who can take away your freedom to be who you want to be? Strictly speaking, no one: but they can refuse to cooperate with your choice, and thereby incentivize you to make certain choices over others. They can reject you, and make you feel there's no socially acceptable way to get your needs met.

    Controlling how much you care about other people's judgments is a moot point when their judgments can actually make you inferior; whether it's an employer denying you the chance to put your skills and education to practical use, or a psychologist saying that you lack sufficient happiness markers to be considered healthy. And if the object of your affection chooses someone else to spend a life with, you may not be made inferior, but you do miss out on the practice of long-term relationship and a host of experiences and memories.

    Yes, we can do things for ourselves regardless of how others perceive us; but there's an unspoken message that things we do for ourselves are not worth as much as things others give us of their own volition. This message is toxic and must be counteracted… but with something stronger than just our own feelings and affirmations. We need to change the social context, so that our society accepts "things we do for ourselves" equally.

    We also need to look more closely at how we "perform" likeability, and how sometimes that can be toxic too– the well-known meme of intelligent girls dumbing themselves down to attract boys is about sexism, but it is also about likeability being conflated with nonthreatening submissiveness. And how many public figures, actual and would-be, have entered into marriages they don't want and created families they're not engaged with, because the social message saying that connecting with their public requires being like them and actually sharing lifestyles rather than merely empathizing with them, was just too strong?

    Perhaps what we really need is a way to gauge our likeability in the absence of feedback from others… because sometimes, we're not even in control of whether we get that.

    The wellbeing-measurement movement attempts to hold us responsible for something we cannot control. That's its fatal flaw.


  • Jules Evans says:

    I think one is always in that slightly insecure position of depending on others' good will.

    You have a choice. You can either focus on that, and feel out of control, anxious, dependent and insecure.


    You can focus on what you bring to the party, what you want to achieve, what your positive dreams and hopes are. and then just hope that other people get on board and support you.

    i think you create your own reality. if you make yourself freak out about how others judge you, you'll make them judge you more, because they will pick up on your insecurity and neediness.

    If you are relaxed, inside yourself, about whether people judge you or dont accept you, they will pick up on that confidence.

    i say that as someone who was deeply insecure and socially anxious. i honestly think we can change our reality, not in a magic 'law of attraction' way – just by being more aware of our beliefs and the emotional charge we create around ourselves.

  • […] as a “flow” system rather than in terms of measurable outcomes. We also discussed Daniel Kaheman‘s holistic idea of wellbeing, through which he argues that wellbeing cannot be understood by […]

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