How do we Measure Well-being?

by ScottK

The optimist sees the glass as half-full; the pessimist, as half-empty. The Performance Measurement consultant sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be.

I'm considered a Performance Measurement expert; I've written a book on the topic, I have consulted to dozens of government and non-governmental agencies about it, and I have successfully created and implemented Performance Measurement Frameworks for everybody from the Canadian Military to municipal governments to charitable organizations.

While this is no-doubt fascinating to you, you might be wondering 'why the heck do I care that you do Performance Measurement'?

Here's why: you can't really say you have something until you understand it; and, you don't really understand it until you can measure it.

So, to bring it back to my main point (at last!), if we want to have that thing called 'Well-Being", we need to find ways to measure it, and measure our progress towards it.

Governments typically measure what they call well-being by GDP - Gross Domestic Product. In other words, if we are producing and consuming more STUFF, we must be increasing our well-being.

It's not too hard to prove the fallacy of that argument; record-high government and personal debt levels are largely driving current GDP growth.

We have health-care crises, and (more important) health crises - i.e. rapid increases in 'lifestyle'-related diseases and conditions across the spectrum.

We have a 'jobless recovery' (possibly the ultimate oxymoron, emphasis on the 'moron') underway in North America; institutions are doing great with 'bailout' money, it's just people that are failing.

And our environment is under increasing threat from too many people chasing too few resources.

Is this 'well-being'? Are we happier, healthier, more fulfilled/less stressed when the GDP goes up a point?

Here's a couple statistics I'm stealing from a friend of mine named Mike Nickerson (

Every 1-point rise in the unemployment rate in the US leads to, on average:

  • 496 deaths from cirrhosis of the liver

  • 648 homicides

  • 920 suicides

  • 3,349 admissions to state prisons

  • 4,227 admissions to mental hospitals

  • 20,240 fatal heart attacks or strokes

How's that for 'measurement'?

Here's an interesting thought experiment: if we added up all the costs associated with social programs, policing and courts and prisons, corporate welfare (i.e. subsidies), drug treatment, etc etc etc, how would that compare to the cost of providing a livable minimum income to every single person in the country?

If people were no longer desperate, would crime go down? Would drug abuse go down? Could governments, police forces, and the whole 'poverty industry' be downsized?

And, would that actually increase well-being?

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