Letter from Berlin
Berlin, 9/18/2014. By sheer coincidence, some of my SWS colleagues and I have been in this city since last Sunday, just before President Aquino comes for a visit. Then I saw a media item from Manila that claimed that the President would be touting the rapid growth of Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) during his visit. I hope he does not bother to talk about the GDP, because it will not impress the Germans anyway.
Ordinary Germans probably could not care less about the GDP of other countries. The German intelligentsia, for their part, know that it is not GDP that really matters—whether for Germany, for the Philippines, or for any country—but the people’s quality of life (QOL).
It is an empirical fact that, in the middle-income and high-income countries, the people’s QOL, which can also be called their wellbeing or their happiness, does not improve in step with the GDP. This is known as the Easterlin paradox—countries are growing richer in terms of GDP, and yet they are not getting happier.
My SWS colleagues and I came to attend the 2014 conference of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS), held from Monday to Thursday this week, at the Freie Universitat Berlin. ISQOLS is an independent community of scholars who, directly or indirectly, do research to measure QOL, and thereby scientifically observe it, and learn how to improve it. The ISQOLS members are from many fields, including sociology, psychology, economics, statistics, political science, and philosophy.
Definitely, QOL is measurable. The main means of measuring it is by surveys of the general population that ask respondents for their personal or subjective assessments of various aspects of their lives. These surveys are relatively simple, and are much easier and cheaper to do than the surveys of production from which GDP is estimated.
Richard Layard, of the London School of Economics, says in his friendly book, “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science”: “In fact most people find it easy to say how good they are feeling, and in social surveys such questions get very high response rates, much higher than the average survey question.”
The Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (the so-called Sarkozy Report, written by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi), says: “It is possible to collect meaningful and reliable data on subjective wellbeing. Subjective wellbeing encompasses three different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride), and negative ones (pain, anger, worry).”
The subjectivity in indicators of subjective wellbeing is not that of the survey researchers. It is the subjectivity of the persons who are surveyed. From these persons’ individual subjectivities comes the community’s collective subjectivity. This is a subjectivity that deserves respect.
Thus the SWS indicators of self-rated poverty and self-reported hunger are mainstream measures of the QOL. SWS has presented them in a number of previous ISQOLS conferences. They are more realistic and more practical than GDP as indicators of the economic wellbeing of Filipinos. Because they are inexpensive to generate, SWS has already surveyed poverty and hunger for three consecutive quarters after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” struck, whereas the government has not yet estimated them at all, after the Yolanda event.
The 2014 ISQOLS conference was a very large event, with over 200 presentations given in 12 parallel sessions and four plenaries. Among the many topics treated were: adolescent and child subjective wellbeing; wellbeing in later life; gender and QOL; community wellbeing; inequalities in wellbeing; health and QOL; QOL of persons with disabilities; economic wellbeing and family background; sustainability of wellbeing; life-course events and subjective wellbeing; world suffering and QOL; poverty and multidimensional deprivation; multidimensional indicators and scales; wellbeing in Africa; social progress in Islamic nations; a QOL analysis of radical Islamic militancy and acts of terrorism; social quality and QOL; welfare and labor market systems and QOL; the contribution of history to QOL research; and regional and national perspectives.
One interesting paper offers a personal happiness indicator that promises to make its users happier. The idea is that a keener awareness of one’s own happiness helps to find an optimal lifestyle for promoting one’s happiness.
The SWS contributions to the ISQOLS conference included: “Views and practices of corporal punishment in the Philippines” (by La Faemear F. Vicuna), “QOL of Filipinos with disabilities” (by Iremae D. Labucay), and “Gender equality in political empowerment in Southeast Asia” (also by Iremae D. Labucay).
Surveys of subjective wellbeing are essentially the same as opinion polls. Yet opinion polls are overlooked by historians of wellbeing, due to failure to include political wellbeing and governance as critical dimensions of wellbeing.
The SWS surveys about satisfaction with the way democracy works, satisfaction with governance, and optimism about one’s future QOL reveal much about the state of wellbeing. These are subjects on which Filipinos have scored very well, from 2010 to the present. In my opinion, they would impress the President’s foreign hosts much more than the high rate of growth of GDP.
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