Hamish McRae: How to improve the lot of humankind - the guidelines

The noise of the past 10 days – our Budget, Cyprus – drowned out the news of the next stage of an important OECD initiative, the publication of guidelines to promote well-being.

The idea is simply that narrow measures of economic progress, notably GDP figures, unemployment and so on – fail to capture other softer indicators of a society's progress. There has been a huge amount of stuff about happiness but the OECD argues that the wider concept of "subjective well-being" is a better measure.

One trouble is that its definition is a bit convoluted: "Better mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences". You can sort of see what they are getting at and maybe it sounds better in French (the OECD is based in Paris) but the words get in the way of the idea rather than clarifying it.

It gets worse, because in trying to explain the importance of including a sense of purpose in life in the evaluation, the OECD, says subjective well-being should include three elements: "life evaluation", "affect", and "eudaimonia".

Oh, dear. Part of the problem of economics is that given half a chance we use words no one understands. Collins doesn't include eudaimonia, but in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary it is "happiness or well-being consisting in the full realisation of human potential". So it is actually a useful concept. How do you pin it down?

Here the work of the OECD is helpful because it sets out guidelines on how to collect data: what questions to ask and in what order, how to train the questioners and so on. One possible template is the so-called Pisa study of pupil attainment at age 15, which the OECD started in 1997 and is now massively useful as it gives a feeling for school standards across the world.

So let's give the project a cautious welcome. It gets economists away from the obsession with GDP and brings the subject back closer to where it began, which was to find ways to improve the lot of humankind.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor