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The science and policy of wellbeing

What produces a happy society and a happy life?

The discipline of wellbeing science seeks to answer this question using empirical evidence about what makes lives more worth living. It aims to transform our ability to base our decisions on the outcomes that matter most, namely the wellbeing of us all including future generations.

Join Professor Lord (Richard) Layard and Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, co-authors of a recent book “Wellbeing: Science and Policy”, as they discuss with Professor Sir Charles Godfray, Director of the Oxford Martin School, how wellbeing can be measured, what causes it and how it can be improved.

To register to attend, either in person in Oxford or online, please visit oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/events/wellbeing.

2306 | Can I Get A Little Less Life Satisfaction, Please?

Michael Plant

Since Parfit (1984), philosophers have standardly held there are three theories of wellbeing: hedonism, desire theories, and the objective list. Some have argued this classification omits a distinct, plausible theory of wellbeing based on life satisfaction. The life satisfaction theory (LST) is notably prominent outside philosophy, with a growing chorus advocating for self-reported life satisfaction to be a, or the, outcome measure for policymaking. In this paper, I investigate the nature and plausibility of LST. I argue that while happiness and life satisfaction are often conflated, LST is best understood as a type of desire theory and not as a distinct account of wellbeing. To evaluate LST, I initially consider two current objections and argue they are little threat. I then present two seriously troubling objections. One is whimsicality: LST implies subjects can determine how well or badly their lives are going for any reason and at any time. The other that it leaves us with too few subjects: it means that, for entities who cannot make whole-life evaluations, such as infants and many animals, nothing can go better or worse for them. I conclude (1) the life satisfaction theory is implausible (but do not argue for an alternative here) and (2) life satisfaction surveys are a useful, but non-ideal measure of wellbeing; we should remain open to, and explore the implications of, other metrics.

Recognizing and correcting positive bias: The salient victim effect

Emily M. Zitek, Laura M. Giurgeand Isaac H. Smith


People seem to have stronger disapproving reactions when they have unfairly suffered from bias than when they have unfairly benefited from it (i.e., they seem less concerned when they have experienced positive bias). Is this because people do not care about the consequences of bias if it has positively affected them, or is it because they fail to notice positive bias? We argue that it is the latter, and that increasing awareness of a victim who has been harmed can “remove the blinders” of the beneficiary of bias. Across seven pre-registered studies of American participants, we tested the effect of a salient victim on people who have experienced positive bias. Our results show that when a victim has been made salient, beneficiaries of bias are more likely to recognize and condemn the positive bias, and they are also more likely to act to correct it. We found this salient victim effect when people reflected on their own positive treatment in society, when they benefited from favoritism in interpersonal interactions, and when they imagined benefiting from nepotism. The effect emerged with both direct and indirect manipulations of the victim. Moreover, the presence of a salient victim spurred more action in those who experienced positive bias even when there was a personal cost. We discuss the contributions of our research to the fairness, morality, and bias literatures.

Wellbeing: Science and Policy

Richard Layard and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve

What produces a happy society and a happy life? Thanks to the new science of wellbeing, we can now answer this question using state-of-the-art empirical evidence. This transforms our ability to base our decisions on the outcomes that matter most, namely the wellbeing of us all including future generations. Written by two of the world’s leading experts on the economics of wellbeing, this book shows how wellbeing can be measured, what causes it and how it can be improved. Its findings are profoundly relevant to all social sciences, including psychology, economics, politics, behavioural science and sociology. A field-defining text on a new science that aims to span the whole of human life, this will be an invaluable resource for undergraduate and graduate students, policy-makers and employers, who can apply its insights in their professional and private lives. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.

Moral Uncertainty, Proportionality and Bargaining

Patrick Kaczmarek, Harry R. Lloyd and Michael Plant


As well as disagreeing about how much one should donate to charity, moral theories also disagree about where one should donate. In light of this disagreement, how should the morally uncertain philanthropist allocate her donations? In many cases, one intuitively attractive option is for the philanthropist to split her donations across all of the charities that are recommended by moral views in which she has positive credence, with each charity’s share being proportional to her credence in the moral theories that recommend that particular charity. Despite the fact that something like this approach is already being used by real-world philanthropists to distribute billions of dollars of donations, it is not supported by any of the approaches to moral uncertainty that have been proposed thus-far in the philosophical literature. In this paper, we will develop a bargaining-based approach to moral uncertainty that honors the proportionality intuition in favor of splitting one’s donations. We also show how this bargaining-based approach has several further advantages over the best alternative proposals.

The business case for an investment in wellbeing

The World Wellbeing Movement is delighted to announce its first-ever Insights webinar on the topic of workplace wellbeing.

Prof Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford and co-founder of the World Wellbeing Movement, will lay out the latest evidence for why an investment in workplace wellbeing is not just the morally right thing to do: but the financially sensible approach, too.

Join us via Zoom at 4.00pm GMT (UTC+0) on Tuesday 21 November to hear some of the latest insights which you can use to inform your organisation’s approach to wellbeing.

Register for free via Zoom.

The power of human hope vs. despair

Make people happier – not just wealthier and healthier


“Basically, economists wanted to be more scientific,” explained Michael Plant, who leads the Happier Lives Institute. “They thought something only counts as science if it’s objectively measurable. Feelings aren’t objectively measurable, therefore they are not science.”

So economists turned away from squishy concepts like happiness and toward objective proxies for well-being, like GDP. In the postwar period, GDP became the go-to way for measuring well-being, even though the concept’s inventor, Simon Kuznets, warned that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”

Labour Law, Employees’ Capability for Voice, and Wellbeing: A Framework for Evaluation

Cherise Regier

Labour power has significantly declined across affluent democracies in recent decades, resulting in a widening scale of power inequality within the contemporary employment relationship. Employee voice is a key component of labour power that represents a human capability according to Amartya Sen’s conceptualisation: a real freedom to achieve states of being that one has reason to value. Employees deficient in the capability for voice lack sufficient bargaining power to influence workplace decision-making, which threatens their wellbeing by increasing their risk of exposure to work-related stressors and limiting their opportunities to improve their welfare. In this article, employee voice legislation is argued to be a necessary social conversion factor of employees’ capability for voice that can promote further advantage. However, research assessing its effectiveness at enhancing wellbeing is greatly limited due to an over reliance on neoliberal and new institutional forms of economic analysis that reveal little about the quality of employees’ lives. A comprehensive framework for evaluation based on Sen’s capability approach is proposed that when operationalised for empirical analysis, can advance our understanding of employee wellbeing in the twenty-first century.

Can tracking happiness improve your wellbeing?


Plant (“an old-fashioned utilitarian”) is pragmatic in his approach. He argues that improving lives can be as important as saving them. Research by the Institute has concluded that spending $1,000 on group therapy in low-income countries—the Institute advocates for a charity called StrongMinds—is a more cost-effective way to improve wellbeing than investing in mosquito nets.