Subjective Wellbeing and Sustainable Development

Wellbeing and Sustainable Development are similar policy goals in that both question the value of even more material consumption goods.

  •  Professor Mark   WoodenProfessor Mark Wooden
    Disagree
    To agree to this statement requires assuming that improvements in material living standards are incompatible with improvements in population well-being, and that is something I do not agree with that. It has been well established in research that indicators of material living standards, such as income and wealth (and even consumption), are positively correlated with measures of subjective wellbeing. Yes, other things like personal health, family and quality of personal relationships, and meaningful employment matter more, but after that there is very little that will be more important at a population level. Money certainly trumps things like biodiversity and concerns about climate. And yes, economic factors will carry less and less weight the richer we become -- the law of diminishing marginal utility. But the vast majority of the world's population is far from the point where that is relevant.

  •  Professor Arie  KapteynProfessor Arie Kapteyn
    Agree
    Consumption goods are subject to strong habituation so that their ultimate effect on wellbeing are always disappointing; by directing attention away from perpetual increase in consumption one can both support sustainability and sustain wellbeing

  •  Doctor Anna  AlexandrovaDoctor Anna Alexandrova
    Disagree
    That depends on how wellbeing is conceptualised and measured. If it is measured as life satisfaction, then it is perfectly plausible that robust policy to support sustainability would result in lower life satisfaction from losses of consumer choices at least in the short term. The very idea of sustainable development implies a certain prudence and sacrifice of present pleasures for the sake of the future, so it makes sense to keep the two concepts separate. We might need a concept of 'sustainable well-being' to incorporate both ideas.

  •  Professor Homa  ZarghameeProfessor Homa Zarghamee
    Agree
    That GDP measures only a very specific slice of material wellbeing, and does so without accounting for the sustainability of produced output, are two of the main critiques of GDP in "Mismeasuring Our Lives" by Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi.

  •  Professor Heinz  WelschProfessor Heinz Welsch
    Agree
    Over the past two decades, robust evidence has accumulated that subjective wellbeing is impaired by adverse environmental conditions and climate change (e.g. climate-related natural hazards) and that people are willing to trade off large amounts of material consumption for better environmental quality (D. Maddison, K. Rehdanz, H. Welsch, eds., Handbook on Wellbeing, Happiness and the Environment, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, forthcoming).

  •  Professor Mariano  RojasProfessor Mariano Rojas
    Completely disagree
    There are different definitions of Sustainable Development, but the notion makes reference to the capability of keeping the 'level of development' in the long run. Wellbeing makes reference to the experience of being well people have. Research shows that income (and material consumption goods) may have little impact on this experience.

  •  Professor Nick  PowdthaveeProfessor Nick Powdthavee
    Agree
    I think that it's more coincidental than intentional that both wellbeing and sustainable development policies are similar. Sustainable development policies focus more on the human and environmental capital, which just happen to be what well-being policies care about as well.

  •  Professor Richard  EasterlinProfessor Richard Easterlin
    Disagree
    SD emphasizes economic growth as a policy objective; it seeks to minimize negative externalities.

  •  Professor Stephen  WuProfessor Stephen Wu
    Agree
    Yes, I believe that there are some similarities in these policy goals.

  •  Professor Bruno  FreyProfessor Bruno Frey
    Completely disagree
    Wellbeing is well defined, sustainability is totally vague and is applied to almost anything

  •  Professor Ada  Ferrer-i-CarbonnellProfessor Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonnell
    Neither agree nor disagree
    While sustainable development questions the possibility of more economic growth and therefore calls for the need of reducing consumption, wellbeing research questions the importance of economic growth for happiness. Well-being in fact seems to point to the importance of a stable small economic growth that gives access to health services, jobs, leisure time, etc. At this point however sustainable development might even call for de-growth, something that might not be optimal for wellbeing.

  •  Professor Martin  BinderProfessor Martin Binder
    Agree
    Both goals are definitively overlapping, at least once a certain material security prevails in a country.

  •  Professor Paul  FrijtersProfessor Paul Frijters
    Agree
    It is true that in the area of more material consumption goods, the two movements are on the same side. The wellbeing movements argues there is more to life than GDP and material welfare, and via the Easterlin Paradox even argues there are large negative externalities on private consumption. The Sustainable Development goals explicitly go beyond GDP and also draw attention to large negative externalities of material goods, including the degradation of natural capital stocks.

  •  Professor Dan  HaybronProfessor Dan Haybron
    Agree
    Roughly, I agree, perhaps strongly. Generally, wellbeing and sustainability are tightly coupled issues so that it doesn't make sense for policy to focus on one without attending to the other. (Though it need not in every case, of course.) To tackle sustainability, for instance, we need both to find more efficient ways to secure good lives and, perhaps more importantly, new ideals of living that are less taxing on the environment.

  •  Doctor Maarten  Vendrik Doctor Maarten Vendrik
    Disagree
    It is by now well-established (see, e.g., Kaiser and Vendrik, 2019) that in developed countries a rise in material goods consumption does not lead to a significant rise in average subjective well-being. However, this may not hold for the poorer part of the population in such countries nor for less developed and developing countries. This leads to a possible conflict between the goals of sustainable development and a higher wellbeing in the latter countries. A possible way to alleviate this conflict is that developed countries support developing countries in their efforts to promote sustainable development and sustainable material consumption. In developed countries the financial costs of that may not lead to a substantial decline in average subjective well-being.





The adoption of Sustainable Development as the goal of government policy is likely to lead to wellbeing increases as well.

  •  Professor Mark   WoodenProfessor Mark Wooden
    Disagree
    While "sustainable development" policies usually have built into them the idea that population well-being will be enhanced, it is not obvious to me that improvements in wellbeing necessarily follow. The UN sustainable development goals include such laudable objectives as an end to worldwide poverty and hunger, clean water and sanitation for all, affordable and clean energy, and I could go on (I am sure world peace must be in there too!). So why then is this not the path that democratic governments have pursued? The answer surely is that people (i.e., voters) see many of the policies that support these sustainable development goals as making them individually worse off. For example, while the UN might claim we can have cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy if governments would cease their support for fossil fuel industries, perhaps voters have worked out for themselves that Pareto optimal improving policies are very hard to find anymore. Further, while many of us might approve of policies aimed, for example, at preserving biodiversity, most of us are not prepared to contribute personally much towards the cost of such policies. There is also an intergenerational issue. Sustainable development, as I understand it, involves current generations sacrificing improvements in their own living standards to ensure future generations will be better off. This thus requires that people have a strong bequest motive. It also may be a difficult sell for policy-makers given the experience of at least the last 200 years of history is that every generation is richer and better off than the preceding generation. Ultimately, things like biodioversity, climate change and the living standards of future generations do not carry enough weight in the welfare functions of enough individuals to ensure that well-intentioned policies will raise overall population well-being.

  •  Professor Arie  KapteynProfessor Arie Kapteyn
    Agree
    As always, this will depend on implementation, but one of the biggest downsides of continuing consumption growth are the negative externalities on both the environment and the wellbeing of others. Sustainable development may reduce such externalities

  •  Doctor Anna  AlexandrovaDoctor Anna Alexandrova
    Neither agree nor disagree
    Sustainable Development is a very complex multidimensional goal. There is no reason to think that all aspects of it correlate positively with well-being (as measured conventionally). This is why advocacy of sustainability needs to appeal not only to well-being but also to justice towards future generations. This value is not reducible to well-being.

  •  Professor Homa  ZarghameeProfessor Homa Zarghamee
    Neither agree nor disagree
    Given loss aversion and status quo bias, there would likely be dramatic diminishment in short-term wellbeing in response to some of the lifestyle changes that may be required to ensure sustainability.

  •  Professor Heinz  WelschProfessor Heinz Welsch
    Agree
    This proposition is consistent with the negative association between subjective wellbeing and poor environmental quality noted above.

  •  Professor Mariano  RojasProfessor Mariano Rojas
    Disagree
    If the statement makes reference to the SDGs becoming the goal o government policy then I do not see a clear and straightforward association to wellbeing increases. I think it is important to make of wellbeing the main goal of government policy and then, as a consequence, one can find out which SDGs are more important in particular social and economic situations.

  •  Professor Nick  PowdthaveeProfessor Nick Powdthavee
    Agree
    Given that the objective outcomes of sustainable development policies a?? e.g. cleaner air, etc. -- tend to go hand in hand with well-being, so yes!

  •  Professor Richard  EasterlinProfessor Richard Easterlin
    Disagree
    Well-being should not take a backseat to SD. It should be the primary objective.

  •  Professor Stephen  WuProfessor Stephen Wu
    Agree
    I think this is certainly plausible on average, though the distributional consequences may be harder to predict.

  •  Professor Bruno  FreyProfessor Bruno Frey
    Disagree
    It is unclear what "sustainability" means but wellbeing is different and not automatically positively correlated.

  •  Professor Ada  Ferrer-i-CarbonnellProfessor Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonnell
    Completely agree
    As argued above this is unclear and depends on what sustainable growth means (does it mean de-growth?). I would agree with the statement if sustainable development meant a small growth (or 0 growth) that would not imply large economic business cycles and would allow individuals to have access to health services, jobs, leisure time, etc.

  •  Professor Martin  BinderProfessor Martin Binder
    Agree
    Sustainable development these days has become such an empty phrase, but yes, an intact environment has been shown to be positively associated with people's well-being and non-consumerist/non-materialist lifestyles seem also associated with higher well-being. Going green might not be the sacrifice (in terms of well-being) that some would expect it to be.

  •  Professor Paul  FrijtersProfessor Paul Frijters
    Agree
    Though it is not clear what policy would look like if sustainable development were taken seriously as the goal of government policy, at the minimum it would reduce the emphasis on more material goods and increase the emphasis of community cohesion and the quality of life for humans. That is likely to have wellbeing benefits too compared to the status quo. So whilst the two agendas do not perfectly overlap in approach, they in practise should be expected to move roughly in the same direction.

  •  Professor Dan  HaybronProfessor Dan Haybron
    Completely agree
    With the important caveat: if done sensibly. Aside from the obvious long-run benefits of a healthier environment, sustainable policies may often favor higher wellbeing in the nearer term as well. For instance, urban planning policies that promote a sense of community and trust probably tend to be more sustainable than, say, suburban sprawl, which is arguably a disaster on all fronts. Material affluence is great to a point, but it can also push us apart from each other. Another example: policy greatly affects diet as well as the sustainability of food production. It would be hard to imagine a more toxic combination of ill-being and unsustainability than the current food system in the United States, which subsidizes unhealthy, fossil-fuel based diets.

  •  Doctor Maarten  Vendrik Doctor Maarten Vendrik
    Neither agree nor disagree
    The adoption of Sustainable Development will definitely lead to an increase in the wellbeing of future generations, but especially in developing countries it may have a wellbeing cost in terms of material consumption for the current generation. This calls for a government policy in developed countries to alleviate this wellbeing cost for developing countries as well as for the poorer part of their own population.