Concern with the quality of life and the measurement of happiness developed in the late sixties as a response to the no longer satisfying pursuit of material well-being and economic growth dictated by the dominant prescriptions of neoclassical economics.
I argue that the an approach based on social indicators enables the definition of a very broad notion of the quality of life which encompasses its various elements, highlights the multifaceted dimensions of welfare, and makes the scope of welfare analyses wider than those based on material standards alone, and, eventually, that such an approach is preferable to constructs centred on happiness and its measurement.
Broadly speaking, social indicators are data which can be used to analyze social systems. There are, however, various specific definitions of them, all of which focus, explicitly or implicitly, on living conditions in critical areas of social systems. Operationally, an analysis based on social indicators has two main purposes: to monitor social change, and to measure individual and aggregate welfare.
The focus of the social indicators approach is on objective elements of the quality of life, rather than on their subjective perceptions by individuals. In other words, the focus on resources and conditions avoids the sole concern on the degree of individual’s needs satisfaction, emphasizing instead her/his capacity to fulfil those needs, and ultimately to make her/his life a good one. Consequently, I uphold the choice of social indicators because of my conviction that the notion of quality of life itself requires that individuals be able to choose the life that best suits them more than because of the intrinsic limitations of subjective indicators or because of the incompleteness of the picture yielded by the happiness approach.
More specifically, happiness is indeed crucial components of welfare. Why neglect it, therefore, since it could be rather easily captured by subjective indicators? The answer to this question resides in the overall goals of welfare analyses, as well as in their philosophical underpinnings. As far as the first point is concerned, social indicators are used to support (and evaluate) public decision making, and they inform and orient public actions. In regard to moral bases, the liberal theories of the state which the social indicators approach implicitly endorses do not argue that the government should enter the sphere of happiness. Rather its role is to make basic liberties, rights, goods and services available to citizens, establishing a framework of rules that, through commanded resources and other contingent conditions, allow individuals to pursue their own ends. On this view individuals are not simply recipients of utility and satisfaction; rather, they have the potential to do things, to decide their projects, and to achieve their goals. The language is therefore that of rights and freedoms, not that of happiness, where individuals are represented only by the extent to which their preferences and desires are satisfied. The social contract thus cannot and should not concern itself with the satisfaction or the happiness of individuals. Even if happiness in itself is a good thing, it does not lie within the government’s purview, for it does not have the information that individuals instead possess about their possibilities of living a happy life. The government must provide citizens with proper access to the conditions, goods and services necessary to enjoy the freedom to pursue their interests. Consequently, the government must not consider the use that citizens make of freedom, rights, goods and services to achieve their happiness.