Alicia Hall (PI) (Philosophy, Mississippi State University).

Empirical well-being research often measures how people assess their lives according to their own priorities, and this research is increasingly used to guide decision making in healthcare and public policy. However, people’s priorities can change, making it difficult to measure the effect of medical treatments and public policies on well-being over time. For example, prior to the onset of a serious, long-term disease, someone might value physical accomplishment as central to her well-being and evaluate her life highly on these grounds; however, after adapting to her illness, she may prioritize relationships and evaluate her life highly due to her connections with friends and family. Because of this change in values, the disease (and its prevention or treatment) might be seen as having little impact on her well-being.

Within healthcare, we need to understand the impact of medical interventions on people’s lives in order to make informed decisions about treatment recommendations and healthcare spending priorities. Similarly, when applying well-being research to public policy, policy-makers need to know the effect policy changes have on people’s lives to determine which initiatives should receive priority. This project examines how to adapt current well-being measures to fit with these aims.

Since we are interested in the effect of medical and policy interventions on people’s overall well-being, we need to consider whether a shift in values that lowers people’s life satisfaction at one point in time might allow them greater well-being in the future, while one that raises their immediate evaluations of their lives might have the opposite effect. For instance, some policy interventions might decrease life satisfaction in the short term by educating people about the possibility and conditions of a better life, but could allow people to make changes that improve their lives in the long term. To make informed decisions, we need to understand how to interpret well-being evaluations at separate points in time when these evaluations are based on different values or standards.

Philosophical theories of well-being provide guidance for this issue, but are sometimes difficult to apply in practice. Empirical measures, on the other hand, provide information about how people evaluate their lives according to their current standards, but are underequipped for answering whether these standards could be improved in a way that would lead to more long-term well-being. We need a practical way of connecting philosophical theories of well-being with the measures used in well-being research to better direct healthcare and policy decisions. This project develops a pragmatic approach to studying well-being in the context of healthcare and public policy. By examining how medical and policy interventions can lead to changes in how people evaluate their lives, this approach will help determine when these changes are likely to be beneficial or maladaptive in the long term, and so help empirical research better guide healthcare and policy decisions aimed at enhancing well-being.