Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years
A universal metric to quantify the happiness return on investment
Converting wealth to wellbeing
If the goal is to maximise human wellbeing, we need more than financial metrics to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of our investments.
What is the Problem?
Over the last 10 years, the world is getting richer - but are we also getting happier? While wealth may be on the rise - so are sea levels, air pollution, and mental health disorders. Despite continued economic growth, it seems we sometimes fail to convert our wealth into wellbeing. So where should we invest our resources most effectively to improve quality of life?
In many countries around the world, wellbeing levels have stagnated or even declined despite continued economic development.
From 2006 to 2018, GDP per capita doubled in size, while the average life satisfaction of the population dropped from 5.35 to 3.82 on a 0 to 10-point scale, a staggering 25% decrease. Today, only 3% of the Indian population can be considered ‘thriving’ according to the Gallup World Poll, one of the lowest rates recorded around the world.
A country that is perhaps the most impressive example of economic development and poverty reduction in human history. Between 1990 and 2010, GDP per capita swelled by a rate of fourteen, while average subjective wellbeing levels declined and suicide rates climbed to one of the highest in the world.
United States of America
Many developed countries have also been subject to a decoupling of wealth and wellbeing. Steady economic growth and a record low unemployment rate in the United States haven’t safeguarded the country against a rise of adolescent depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.
In one of the world’s happiest countries, the rise in GDP per capita since the financial crisis has been accompanied by increasing loneliness, rising stress, and poor mental health particularly among younger people.
What is the solution?
To adopt of a common currency of impact based on evidence and experience for public and private organization to make better decisions that lead to better lives and a better world.
Introducing Wellbeing-Adjusted Life Years
What are the benefits?
The metric we propose considers progress in terms of gains or losses in Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years (or WALYs). WALY is rooted in decades of research and extensively validated measures of subjective wellbeing. Relative to existing measures of impact, WALY has two primary benefits:
Rooting decisions in the reality of human experience
Conventional social impact indicators are often measured in terms of utility or objective indicators aimed at mirroring wellbeing. While these indicators can provide important and useful information, by design, they cannot take into account fundamental realities of lived experience.
WALYs are based on decades of research and extensively validated measures of subjective wellbeing, and therefore do not rely on fallible proxies and simplified assumptions about human nature.
Enabling paradigm-shifting advances
Would it be better to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s or prostate cancer? Would it be better to reduce loneliness, diabetes, or air pollution by 50%? How can we produce the greatest happiness return for humankind?
WALYs can measure and model impact across social, economic, and environmental domains. The model we propose is designed to enable paradigm-shifting advances in impact investment and policymaking by identifying market opportunities and wellbeing scarcities that conventional metrics are blind of.
Three different approaches to measuring impact and progress
To philosophers, wellbeing is a concept generally used to describe how well someone’s life is going for that person. It is a state of being that is inherently or noninstrumentally good. Theories of wellbeing have tended to fall into one of three categories: (1) utility, (2) objective wellbeing, or (3) subjective wellbeing.
Predicting new territories for investment
There is an immense amount of unhappiness in the world that remains untreated. This uncharted territory can be revealed by Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years.
Where can it be applied to?
WALY serves as a key performance indicator where costs and benefits are combined into a single unit of effect to enable value comparisons across domains. At the Happiness Research Institute, we have successfully applied WALYs to evaluate the Happiness Return on Investment on both health outcomes and environmental impacts. The metric can also be scaled up to other domains of investment.
The wellbeing burden of disease
A growing body of evidence has begun to demonstrate the profound significance of poor mental and social health relative to physical health. These problems are heavily overlooked by conventional cost-utility tools like Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) and Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY)
By instead rooting health evaluations in patient self-reports, WALYs can offer a much-needed new approach to evaluating health outcomes in terms of patient experience.
By offering WALY estimations of individual and societal wellbeing burdens for 16 diseases in 28 European countries, we find that depression and anxiety disorders are responsible for greater wellbeing losses on both an individual and societal level than almost any other illness under consideration and that symptoms affecting social and mental wellbeing prove to be significantly more important to patient self-reported wellbeing than physical symptoms.
Our analysis suggests that continuing with business-as-usual may lead us to undervalue potent sources of patient suffering and even disregard promising interventions to raise patient wellbeing.
The invisible wellbeing cost of air pollution
It is often exceedingly difficult to tell whether progress brought about by transport and industry can outweigh the costs of air pollution.
In an attempt to address this question, we ran a WALY analysis in which we compared the subjective wellbeing of residents living in polluted cities to counterparts living in similar cities with better air quality.
We find for example that reducing pollution levels to zero in Kraków could increase average life satisfaction by 0.29 points on a 4-point scale. This would be equivalent to an increase of 0.09 WALYs per person. In addition, we find that the wellbeing burden of air pollution in Krakow is roughly equivalent to a loss of €782 per year, or 15% in annual income for a household earning €5,000 per year (mean annual household income in Krakow).
As this analysis makes clear, the costs of urban air pollution can be substantial. In the most polluted European cities, WALYs lost due to pollution even approach average WALYs lost due to very severe diseases
Application in decision-making
Today, investors around the world are expected to do more than facilitating material wealth. They are being asked to ensure wellbeing.
A metric for the future.
In the coming years, the need to direct human activity towards sustainable pursuits of individual wellbeing will only become more urgent. Many nations around the world are already reeling from the destabilizing effects of a diminishing sense of meaning in people’s lives, a trend that is likely to be exacerbated by rising automation and climate change. For public and private organization to tackle these challenges, we need a new approach, one that gives central importance to measuring, tracking, targeting, and improving subjective wellbeing over time and across generations.
Applicable in public and private organizations
WALYs offer a fresh perspective from which to consider the effectiveness of public and private investments, one that promises to shine new light on previously untapped opportunities and generate meaningful and lasting impacts on individual and societal wellbeing.
Using WALYs to guide private investment will uncover untapped market potential and ensure that decisions make a positive contribution to people’s reality of experience.
Even though the broadening of private sector obligations to society has inspired a new generation of investment tools including Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR),
Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) and
the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is difficult to elicit any actionable guidance or priorities from these metrics on their own.
These metrics have undoubtedly opened up important new avenues of exploration, but one fundamental limitation inherent to these existing metrics is their overwhelming reliance on objective indicators as opposed to subjective measures of human wellbeing. While objective indicators provide important knowledge about fundamental life circumstances, WALY addresses the full extent of what matters most to people which will guide innovation and decisions to address wellbeing scarcities
A public adaptation of WALYs means measuring public benefits of prioritization and decision making in much broader terms than fiscal impacts. WALY predication can be utilized to systematically inform effective budget priorities within and across domains like public health, environment and education and will ultimately ensure the deliverance of social value to citizens.
Some governments around the world have already made use of subjective wellbeing indicators. In New Zealand, the Treasury recently instituted a Living Standards Framework which can be used to evaluate new government policy in terms of its ability to improve citizens lives, and in the United Kingdom, the UK Treasury Green Book now considers evaluations based on subjective wellbeing to be of fundamental importance. Related initiatives to put subjective wellbeing at the centre of policymaking are also underway in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan, and Australia among others.