The well-being paradox—people are getting richer, but not more satisfied

January 29, 2018, Eindhoven University of Technology
Graph showing the GDP per capita vs well-being in The Netherlands in the period 1850-2011. Credit: Lintsen et al., Well-being, Sustainability and Social Development: the Netherlands, 1850-2050.

For decades, there was a single main indicator of how countries were faring—the growth of gross domestic product. But earnings do not say much about how healthy people are. Jan-Pieter Smits, professor at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and senior statistics researcher at Statistics Netherlands (CBS), is the spiritual father of a new measuring instrument that gives policymakers a better understanding of societal well-being. It shows, among other things, that Dutch wealth from the 1970s onward started to run out of step with wider well-being.

Economists now widely believe that economic growth as a compass for government policy is harmful in the long run. "There is a growing dissatisfaction in society. "Society wants something else," says statistics researcher Jan-Pieter Smits. He has been working on an ambitious project since the 1990s, a "new compass" for overseas policy worldwide. At the request of the United Nations, the European Commission and the OECD, he developed a new together with a large team. It has now been approved by the statistics offices of 65 countries, and in the Netherlands, a report based on this measurement system is even a topic of a parliamentary debate.

According to Smits, we are dealing with a well-being paradox: People are getting richer, but not more satisfied. This is illustrated in a book he wrote with Harry Lintsen, Frank Veraart and John Grin that will be published shortly. It contains an analysis of wide well-being of the Netherlands, measured from the year 1850. They used 15 indicators and combined them into one indicator followed by a comparison with the development of the per capita. The resulting graph shows that wealth and well-being went more or less hand-in-hand until 1950, after which well-being edged ahead. But then accelerated solidly, while wide well-being lagged behind.

The model that Smits developed with his colleagues has about 100 indicators to measure well-being, whether societies leave enough for the next generation, and whether they do not make excessive demands on the resources of other countries—often the third world. An example of an indicator is the percentage of people with obesity as a measure of nutritional quality. Life expectancy serves as a measure of health. The level of education is a measure of the human capital of a country. Smits' model looks not only at the national averages, but also at how wealth is divided throughout society. For example, how much do incomes vary? Do women receive as much education as men, and are they equally represented in parliament?

An important precondition for the choice of indicators is that they are universal. Smits says, "You often still see that sustainability policy is a political toy, which is always adjusted when a new government takes office. We therefore want a model that is robust, a model that is above politics." Moreover, the indicators do not have to depend on country or culture, so that they measure what matters everywhere.

The application of the model has already yielded interesting new insights. For example, it appears that global CO2 emissions have already exceeded the standard set out in the Paris Agreement of 2015. The analyses also show that countries that had colonies often still have an excessive claim on raw materials from developing countries, led by former colonial powers the Netherlands and Portugal.

Although there is already a detailed model, there are still many questions that Smits wants to get his teeth into as a professor. One of them is the question of how you measure the value of nature and animals, without looking only at economic value. There is also a great need for an indicator that warns about bubbles in the financial sector, because they repeatedly cause recessions.

Explore further: GDP: Gross Domestic Problem?

More information: For a full overview see the report Conference of European Statisticians Recommendations on Measuring Sustainable Development: www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/st … _SD_web.pdf#page=102

Related Stories

GDP: Gross Domestic Problem?

January 25, 2018

It can topple governments, confer international bragging rights and pretty much obsessed the government of China once the country began its long march back to economic prowess.

Recommended for you

Chinese Cretaceous fossil highlights avian evolution

September 24, 2018

A newly identified extinct bird species from a 127 million-year-old fossil deposit in northeastern China provides new information about avian development during the early evolution of flight.

Ancient mice discovered by climate cavers

September 24, 2018

The fossils of two extinct mice species have been discovered in caves in tropical Queensland by University of Queensland scientists tracking environment changes.

The first predators and their self-repairing teeth

September 24, 2018

The earliest predators appeared on Earth 480 million years ago—and they even had teeth capable of repairing themselves. A team of palaeontologists led by Bryan Shirley and Madleen Grohganz from the Chair for Palaeoenviromental ...

Fat from 558 million years ago reveals earliest known animal

September 20, 2018

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) and overseas have discovered molecules of fat in an ancient fossil to reveal the earliest confirmed animal in the geological record that lived on Earth 558 million ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jeffhans1
not rated yet Jan 29, 2018
If their GDP is anything like ours in America, the percent is going up but only because the top 1% is warping the average. Our buying power per person is going down year by year but the numbers appear positive if you ignore rising medical costs and the dropping buying power of the dollar. Manipulating the inflation rate to hide changes will only work for so long before the people catch on and the whole system falls apart. We should be seeing worldwide wealth with automation allowing for more food, mining and manufacturing yet the gains are limited to a tiny percentage of the populace while everyone else tries to get by on less an less each year.

Locking up the creative works of each generation behind middlemen more and more is also causing dissatisfaction to grow as our culture is being stolen and monetized with ever increasing restrictions on use and creativity. Our species creates as a byproduct of our imagination. There is no public benefit from gatekeepers appropriating it.
mqr
not rated yet Jan 29, 2018
Yes more money, but less love, less caring, more divorce, more loneliness, less friends, more hatred, less wisdom. The confusion arises from the amount of lying in western societies. Because there are plenty of indicators that money does not mean happiness at all, for example, the suicides of very rich people. Indeed, research indicates that having money is psychologically and morally destructive, as more money means less connecting with other human beings.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.