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Trends in Conceptions of Progress and Well-being

The World Happiness Report exists because of the deep idea that individuals are able to report their subjective experiences in a way that can meaningfully guide them and societies towards better lives. The first part of this idea, to do with measurement, requires an extensive, widespread collection of happiness data over decades, as well as the research that starts with this raw data and ends with understanding differences and changes in happiness across individuals and countries.

Equally important is the narrative change that is key for society to begin to privilege human experience in its conception of progress. Because of this, the authors of the World Happiness Report ask to what extent is the public and popular narrative about well-being and progress shifting towards a modern, happiness-oriented view of human experience? Quantitative indicator frameworks put these ideas into concrete form and do so without the enormous ambiguity that often accompanies the use of expressions like ‘well-being,’ ‘quality of life,’ and ‘progress.’

Indeed, changes in language use do not always straightforwardly inform us of changes in values or conceptions. The word ‘well-being,’ in its various forms, is increasing in popularity and is more often being used to connote sustainability and equality, in addition to its older range of meanings.

Several threads run through the evidence collected for the World Happiness Report. First, the role and prominence of happiness and its related concepts and terminology are on the rise – in books, in research, in government and private constructions of progress indicators, and in government policy initiatives. In the last quarter-century, the words ‘happiness’ and ‘income’ have undergone opposite trajectories, respectively doubling and halving their use in printed books. Across multiple languages, references to the World Happiness Report are growing rapidly as a fraction of all words. Economic research articles on happiness have increased in number and spread around the world.

Second, a policy is increasingly part of the context when academics discuss happiness, and governments are increasingly innovating in articulating social objectives and well-being indicators. Nevertheless, the efforts which are likely to endure involve some deep form of accountability to the democratic process or to empirical evidence when specifying the weights or constituents in indicator systems. 

Third, there are signs of conceptual maturation of these efforts, in which the statistical measurement of happiness, the frameworks for assessing progress, and the technical analysis for informing policy are coming into alignment. Some of the ‘fuzzy’ language mentioned in the World Happiness Report may be particularly useful to help facilitate discourse within governments and among the public, as they progress from seeking and exploring new and more hopeful and human-centered aspirations for society toward specific and implementable measurements, indicator frameworks, and evidence-informed policy-making capabilities. 

A future expectation is that well-connected, international collaborations among innovating governments are likely to address the challenges mentioned in the World Happiness Report and develop concepts of progress that incorporate happiness appropriately and which are clear, compelling, informative, and useful for monitoring progress and improving policy.

John Helliwell on the World Happiness Report 2022
Jeffrey Sachs and Luis Gallardo talk about the State of World Happiness

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