SMU prof seeks to measure well-being beyond GDP

All nations ought to look at subjective well-being, he says
Anna Teo Business Times 22 Jul 11;

(SINGAPORE) As countries worldwide add subjective measures of well-being in tracking progress beyond GDP, Singapore is poised to take the lead in Asia on the subject, says a Singapore academic who co-authored a report submitted to the United Nations on measures of national well-being across countries.

David Chan, an internationally lauded psychology professor at Singapore Management University, has been working with five other researchers - including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and renowned psychologist Ed Diener - over the last several years on an international committee formed to develop indicators of well-being, supported by several international associations of psychology.

The idea is that all nations ought to look at subjective well-being and not focus on only 'objective' indicators such as GDP or HDI, the UN's human development index, a composite measure that also takes into account life expectancy, literacy and standard of living.

Says Prof Chan, who is also director of SMU's Behavioural Sciences Institute (BSI): 'At the end of the day, the government's role in each nation, and what we all want to promote, is to enhance the well-being of society, ie, its citizens. Therefore you need to ask how the citizens think, how they feel - and how they think and feel will affect how they act, like how they decide to co-operate to help others, or to stay in this country, to contribute and to be rooted, to fight for the nation, so to speak.'

And while economic and social indicators such as GDP or HDI are important and relevant, 'they do not directly assess the important part of how you feel and how you think, and well-being is inherently subjective', he adds, pointing out that Singaporeans aspire in the national pledge to be united 'so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation'.

And when properly assessed 'in its different facets for different segments of the population', measures of subjective well-being 'will tell policy makers which segments are doing well, what have we done right; it will also signal to us what are the danger signs and potential concerns, and that will then give us the roadmap to look at how certain policies need to be changed or how new policies can be better designed and implemented', says Prof Chan, who has done work on well-being in Singapore and overseas for more than a decade.

As more nations recognise the need to track well-being - 'not necessarily in the form of just one index' - Singapore is well-placed to be a thought leader on the subject, he says.

'As we think about measures across nations, we should not just borrow everything from the West, because some may not apply here. In fact, Singapore can take quite a lot of the lead here, because we have relevant expertise, a reasonably good working relationship between academia and government, and because Singapore and Asia provide a wonderful testbed to look at these issues that can bring in unique cultural and contextual factors.'

At Prof Chan's BSI, an independent research institute, quality of life and well-being is one of its research focus areas.

'In BSI, we will work with organisations and public sector agencies to develop well-being indices, not necessarily one index but indices both at the organisational and the national level, and see how we can then use these measures to track subjective well-being, not just as a complementary indicator of progress but as a valuable source of input for policy making and implementation.'

One key issue that BSI is studying is the role of emotions in subjective well-being.

'For example, it is well established that humans react stronger to negative than positive things, and negative effects also last longer. But research also shows that negative emotions and negativity effects can have adaptive value under some situations and the challenge is to study the issues and contexts to better understand emotions.

The practical goal is to provide evidence-based approach to inform efforts by individuals, groups, organisations or governments to increase the well-being of employees or citizens. This often leads us to focus on not only policy intent and content but also implementation and engagement.'

Subjective well-being is important both as an end in itself and as a means to other positive ends, he adds.

Among several professional awards he has won, Prof Chan was last month conferred Fellow status in the Association for Psychological Science - an honour bestowed on prominent scientists who have made 'unusual and sustained outstanding contributions' to the science of psychology.

He is also the first non-American to receive the Distinguished Early Career Contributions Award from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.