Roger Crisp (Philosophy, University of Oxford)

David Bradford (Economics, University of Georgia)

Paul Dolan (PI) (Economics, London School of Economics)

Matthew Adler (Law, Duke University)

What constitutes wellbeing has profound implications for how we think about the “good life”, how we allocate scarce resources, and for the choices each of us makes on a daily basis. Wellbeing has traditionally been measured by considering the objective circumstances of a person’s life, the degree to which they can satisfy their desires, or, more recently, by asking people how satisfied they are with their lives overall. These measures provide good stories and snapshot pictures about how well life is going, but they have somewhat little to say about a person’s experiences as they go about their daily lives, which can sometimes differ quite markedly from overall assessments. Stories and snapshots matter, but so does the camcorder of someone’s life; how they feel on a moment-to-moment basis.

This project is focused on empirically testing a comprehensive account of experience-based wellbeing that brings together two of the most compelling accounts of wellbeing – the Benthamite hedonic view and the Aristotelian eudemonic perspective – into an overarching notion of experiential wellbeing, which we refer to as sentimental hedonism. Sentimental hedonism suggests that wellbeing is the flow of “pleasure” and “purpose” over time, and that a happy life is one that contains the “right” balance (for that individual) of pleasurable and purposeful experiences. Pleasure and purpose are used as shorthand for good and bad hedonic and eudemonic sentiments, respectively, such as joy, anxiety, and worry on the one hand and meaning, fulfillment and futility on the other. Our call to arms in the measurement of wellbeing is to move from stories and snapshots towards the flow of experiences of pleasure and purpose over time.

Our study will apply a theoretically rigorous yet user-friendly mobile phone app to assess the flow of pleasure and purpose over time associated with what people do, who they are with, and what they think about. We will elicit many observations from the same people over time, so ours will be the first high frequency longitudinal study of the richness of people’s experiences over time. Additionally, we will look at the causal effects of “nudging” people into activities that are often seen as “good” and “bad” for happiness: volunteering and watching a boring video, respectively. Whilst research in behavioural science has made widespread use of randomised controlled trials in the field to show the causal effects of interventions, there are remarkably few studies in wellbeing research that have been designed with establishing causality in mind, and this greatly limits the significance and relevance of the evidence to date.

We will discover whether it is possible to generate a single index for pleasure and purpose at the individual-level, thus enabling the use of aggregated measures in the economic appraisal of interventions designed to improve wellbeing. By framing wellbeing as the flow of pleasure and purpose over time, we will provide the general public with improved knowledge of how to feel better for longer.

Visit Paul Dolan's website.