Can you measure happiness / wellbeing / life satisfaction?

Hopefully, everyone will want 100% wellbeing for 100% of people on the planet.  And as the old adage goes, you can only manage what you measure. Therefore we ought to measure wellbeing if we want to manage our way to 100% wellbeing.

When I discuss this idea the two most common comments I get are:

  • “you can’t measure wellbeing/happiness/life satisfaction”
  • “how can you measure wellbeing?”

This blog will hopefully go some way to debunking these myths.  It explains:

  • how wellbeing is being measured throughout the world right now
  • the scientific basis for using influential psychologist, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs
  • how environmental protection adds to security of supply of our basic needs such as food, water, air and physical wellbeing

Wellbeing measurement in the world

For a long time governments have measured the state of the economy using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with an assumption that GDP is synonymous with human wellbeing.  However, using GDP as a measure of wellbeing has come into question.  Perhaps the most telling work that questioned the GDP approach came from economist Professor Richard Easterlin (1).   In his work he found that economic indicators (of which GDP is one) did not correlate with the happiness or welfare of people.  This was based on actual data and has led to what is now called the Easterlin Paradox.  He recognised that many other factors contribute to happiness or welfare and income was only one of them.  Since then a whole branch of happiness economics and positive psychology has evolved and measurement of certain elements of wellbeing have been established.
In fact, the same organisation that collects standard GDP figures, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), agreed in 2007 to form a shared view of societal wellbeing by collecting and reporting statistics on societal progress (2). This has manifest itself in many countries and now the UK Government’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) releases wellbeing statistics each year.

For example, one of the questions in the 2011 ONS (3) survey was “please tell me how satisfied you are with your social life, using a scale from 1 to 10 where “1” means you are ‘very dissatisfied with social life’ and “10” means you are ‘very satisfied with social life’?”  Incidentally, the UK answers were compared to similar surveys around the rest of Europe.  The average answer for the UK was 7.0 (i.e. 70%).  The highest in Europe was Denmark with an average of 8.3 and the lowest was Bulgaria with an average of 5.9.

This short history suggests that wellbeing is a measurable concept and its measurement is taken very seriously at an international level and has potential to replace GDP as a fuller measure of success of government’s’ policies.
Scientific basis for using psychologist Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who theorised that all humans have 5 essential needs (4).  They need to be satisfied in order to be in a state of “peak experience”, the ultimate in human potential.  Although used extensively in management practices and governance, his theory has only recently been correlated with life satisfaction scores. Top positive psychologist researchers (5) compared the degree of needs satisfaction with wellbeing scores of 61,000 people around the world.  They found that the more  Maslow’s needs were satisfied, the higher the wellbeing of the 61,000 people.  In other words Maslow’s hierarchy of needs really is a good framework for measuring wellbeing.

How environmental protection is included

Maslow’s hierarchy is often depicted as a pyramid of needs.  They are:

Basic – food, water, air, shelter
Security – that your basic needs will be met
Social – contact with others
Esteem – respect from your peers
Self-actualisation – a state many peak experiences

It is possible, and relatively easy, to measure the degree to which most of those needs are satisfied.  For example, psychological studies(6) have shown that simply asking people how they rate their self-esteem gives quite accurate answers.

However, security is a trickier one to assess. As a starting point I interpret this as freedom from physical attack as well as security of supply of our basic needs for the rest of our lives. Assessing these requires complex projection work e.g. flood prediction if we want to ensure security of our shelters (homes).  In all these projections environmental protection is a major part of the assessment.  Examples:

  • Carbon emissions and climate change threaten security of supply of food and water
  • Air pollution threatens security of supply of air that we need
  • Unsustainable materials usage threatens physical security as it can lead to direct human harm
  • Biodiversity destruction threatens the supply of all our basic needs


Hopefully this blog has gone some way to convince you that wellbeing is measurable and that whatever means of measuring is chosen it include environmental protection.  That way we have got a good chance of protecting our environment as well as achieving 100% wellbeing for everyone.

Maybe, you would like to assess your own wellbeing?  Click here to have a go.

Please keep an eye out for my other blogs and read the “contact” section of this site.


  1. Easterlin (1974). Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence. In Paul A. David and Melvin W. Reder, eds., Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramovitz, New York: Academic Press
  2. Istanbul Declaration,  Measuring and fostering the progress of societies, 27-30 June2007, Istanbul, Turkey, Second OECD World Forum on “Statistics, Knowledge and Policy”
  4. A Theory of Human Motivation, A. H. Maslow (1943), Originally Published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
  5. (Tay, 2011), Tay L, Diener E., “Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology., 2011, Vol. 101, No. 2, 354–365
  6. Robins, R.W, Hendin H,M. Trzesniewski K.H, 2001, Measuring global self-esteem: Construct Validation of a single-item measure and the Rosenberg self-esteem scale., Society for personality and social psychology, Inc, Vol 27 No. 2 February 2001 151-161

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