New measure of national wellbeing finds women less happy than men

// 11 February 2009

When I’m not being a very lax feminist blogger, I’m a public policy wonk with an interest in local economic development. So I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the publication of the new economics foundation‘s groundbreaking National Accounts of Wellbeing.

Some economists have been taking an increasing interest in how we really measure and understand wellbeing both as economists and public policy makers. After all, most economists would agree that maximising social welfare efficiency is the goal – they just disagree on how to go about it and, more fundamentally, what it looks like when you get there.

For various reasons, this is actually rather hard to measure. As our closest proxy, we tend to use Gross National Product (GNP, or the similar GDP) per person. These are really just measures of a country’s wealth, accounting for the size of its population. But wealth doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness and wellbeing, and it certainly says nothing about equity. There’s a famous Robert Kennedy quote from 1968, which says:

“Gross National Product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising and … the destruction of the redwood, and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play … the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Everyone acknowledges GNP and GDP are imperfect measures, but policy makers need some standard against which to measure progress and, to date, nobody has really been able to point to a better way. The new economics foundation is stepping into the breach, and has spent a number of years progressing towards the point where they have compiled a new index which they believe is systematic, reliable and practical way to measure progress.

They are calling on governments to “shift the goalpoasts” in what they call success, and to begin to measure that success based on a direct measurement of people’s subjective wellbeing. You can read the full report here, and calculate your own wellbeing here (as well as compare it to European averages, different age groups etc) .

In the meatime, though, a quick look at the statistics confirmed a few interesting findings about the relation between gender and happiness. It found that, across Europe, men are generally happier than women. There are, of course, exceptions. The men and women of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Austria, Switzerland and Ireland are about equally happy. The men and women of Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia and Estonia are about equally unhappy.

nef europe men.jpg

But in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bulgaria, women are systematically less happy than men. And where are women happier? You guessed it … nowhere.

nef europe women.jpg

In the UK, they find that being female is statistically significantly associated with lower personal wellbeing, lower emotional wellbeing (absence of negative feelings), lower resilience and self esteem, and lower vitality. I wonder what we could blame for that …. ?

On the other hand, in some positive news, being female is statistically significantly associated with greater social wellbeing, and greater feelings of trust and belonging.

The nef say that there is a “strong case” for evaluating all policy decisions not in terms of how they will affect GDP (ie ‘the economy’) but in terms of how they affect wellbeing. This, they say, “could work on the model of UK race, gender and disability equality legislation, which places a legal duty on public authorities to undertake impact assessments to determine whether new an existing policies have the potential to impact diverse groups of people differently” (p.47 of the report). Go, have a look at the site, it’s completely fascinating.

The images are captured from the nef website; they hold the copyright. I’ve put them up here because I figure they’re keen to have their work talked about as much as possible. If you’re from the nef and object to our using the images, please get in touch and we’ll take them down!

Comments From You

New Jon // Posted 14 February 2009 at 3:26 am

Meanwhile, in a parallel blog in a galaxy far, far away:

“On the other hand, in some negative news, being male is statistically significantly associated with lower social wellbeing, and lower feelings of trust and belonging.”

Hmm – the main thrust of the post being that a gender gap in happiness is a bad thing would perhaps prevent me describing as positive the components of happiness going one way or the other.

Just a thought. I can’t suggest anything useful about the whole question at this time in the morning. Reminds me though how easily I can use gender-specific words myself without noticing (thought long and hard about the use of “one-upmanship” but decided it didn’t fit here and stopped myself).

Loved the RFK quotation by the way.

Lynne Miles // Posted 14 February 2009 at 3:36 am

God, sorry, you’re totally right. Slapdash! I should have said “in some good news for women”. Not at all good for men. Clearly. Bad me.

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