A Theory of Subjective Wellbeing
278 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2019
Date Written: November 19, 2018
Subjective well-being scholarship (SW-B) has opened valuable new vistas in wellbeing research over the past four decades or so. However, owing to its operationalist epistemology, it cannot effectively advance into areas it now wants to influence, notably welfare economics and public policy. It must first adopt a more realist epistemology, which begins with a deep theory of wellbeing, including its causal structure. I provide this theory — the wellbeing production function — drawing on ideas in clinical, hedonic, moral, behavioural and developmental psychology, and both analytical and continental philosophy. The individual components of this theory have empirical backing, but the model of wellbeing that it gives rise to produces some inferences that are not verified by subjective well-being data. In particular, the model would suggest that people can experience sustained improvements in life satisfaction over the life course, but this is rarely what we see in data generated by life satisfaction scales questions administered in advanced nations. This discrepancy motivates an investigation in the final chapter as to whether life satisfaction scales might suffer from issues of scale norming driven by ceiling effects. This would explain the discrepancy between the model’s inferences and what we see in the data. I provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence from a novel life satisfaction plotting metric that lends credence to this hypothesis. This leads me to argue that the field should experiment with alternate metrics for measuring life satisfaction and evaluated wellbeing more generally. I discuss some possible options.
Keywords: well-being, happiness, eudaimonia, hedonia, public policy
JEL Classification: I3, I31, I38
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation