Do All Well-Being Indicators Tell Similar Stories About Human Flourishing?

Human flourishing is about enjoying the things that it is good for humans to have. It is more than economic opportunity; it is more than feeling happy or satisfied with life; it is more than safety and security; it is more than good health and longevity; it is more than educational opportunity; it is more than being free to choose how you live your life; it is more than the opportunity to participate in political processes; it is more than social capital; it is more than the opportunity to enjoy the natural environment. These things may all be relevant to human flourishing but no single aspect incorporates everything that contributes to individual flourishing. Any list of aspects of human flourishing is likely to be incomplete and include items that are more important to some individuals than to others.

Hopefully everyone who reads the above paragraph will consider it to be a statement of the obvious. However, the idea that there is more to life than feeling happy or satisfied actually seems to be quite controversial. Some happiness researchers, including some economists, seem to think that everything that is good for humans to have can be reduced to a single number reflecting feelings of happiness or satisfaction with life.

In an earlier post (What are the characteristics of a good society?) I suggested that nearly everyone would agree that a good society would provide its members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have. In another post (Is a good society index a good idea?) I foreshadowed that I would attempt to identify the suite of indicators that are most relevant to assessing to what extent particular societies might qualify as good societies. This post goes some way toward that objective. It presents indicators of the performance of various societies in relation to a range of aspects of human flourishing.

In the following table countries have been ranked by per capita income levels. The ratings of countries with performance in the top quartile for each indicator are shown against a green background, those for the second quartile are shown in yellow, the third quartile in orange and the fourth quartile in red.

The table shows that many well-being indicators tell a similar story about human flourishing. It also shows, however, that both per capita GDP and subjective indicators of the quality of life have limitations as well-being indicators. This is particularly evident in regard to societies such as United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Kuwait. (Many of the indicators used in the table are sub-indexes of the Legatum Prosperity Index. Indicators are defined and information sources are presented below the table.)

Notes:

Income index: Real GDP per capita (rgdpl) for 2007 from the Penn World Table, expressed as a fraction of per capita GDP in the United Arab Emirates, the country with highest per capita GDP. Source: Alan Heston, Robert Summers and Bettina Aten, Penn World Table Version 6.3, Center for International Comparisons of Production, Income and Prices at the University of Pennsylvania, August 2009.
Quality of life index: Gallup World Poll data on “life today” (latest available) country averages, expressed as a fraction of the rating for Denmark, the country with the highest rating.

Safety and Security: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index. High ratings reflect the existence of a safe environment and peaceful society.

Health: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index measuring how well citizens are capable of living long and healthy lives.

Education: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index reflecting mainly the years of schooling that a nation’s citizens complete.

Freedom: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index which measures how well citizens are able to freely choose the course of their lives and their perceptions of societal tolerance.

Democratic Institutions: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index which reflects civil liberties, political rights, the independence of the judiciary etc.

Social capital: A sub-index of the Legatum prosperity index which reflects how well people are engaged in social networks and relationships that are trustworthy and supportive.

Environmental satisfaction: Gallup World Poll data on the satisfaction of citizens with efforts to preserve the environment in their country, presented in index form such that the highest rating country has a rating of 1.0 and the lowest rating country has a rating of zero.

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