Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Capabilities and Happiness: Potential Synergies

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Capabilities and Happiness: Potential Synergies

Article excerpt

Abstract The paper compares two prominent approaches to assessing Human Well-Being, the Capability Approach and the Subjective Well-Being Approach. It investigates the differences and the similarities between these approaches. An argument is made for exploring the potential synergies between them. Finally, the papers of this special edition are briefly introduced.

Keywords: human well being, capability approach, subjective well-being, happiness, adaptive preferences


Understanding and assessing human well-being (HWB) is a complex and difficult task that involves the handling of a multiplicity of informational spaces (such as those of preferences, choices, resources, autonomy, rights, etc) and the debate about how to do this has been ongoing for many years. Disputing claims about the nature of a good life have pervaded the history of political and moral philosophy. Consequently, as Mitchell et al. (1995:111) suggest, there is a "considerable lack of consensus amongst quality-of-life researchers regarding definitions, terminology and methodology". More recently, two groups of theories (or approaches) emerging from different disciplines have achieved prominence in social sciences for providing guidance about evaluating HWB, namely, the Capability Approach (CA) and the Subjective Well-Being Approach (SWB), often known as 'Happiness' theories (or the Life-Satisfaction Approach).

The CA provides a framework for assessing HWB that i) promotes theoretical inclusiveness, arguing for enlargement of informational spaces in normative assessments and that ii) puts emphasis on 'autonomy' and 'human agency' as crucial dimensions of HWB. The CA's main tenets have been shaped by the seminal work of Sen (1992, 1999) and Nussbaum (1999, 2000), among others, within the context of political & moral philosophy and human development. Theories of SWB have put forward an approach that i) explores positive psychological features related to HWB and that ii) puts emphasis on the quantification of causes and processes underlying human happiness. These theories have developed a constructive attitude towards the measurement of HWB constituents, based on the work of leading psychologists, economists and neuroscientists, such as Kahneman (1999), Diener (2003), Frey and Stutzer (2002), Easterlin (2003) and Seligman (2004), among others.

It must be noted that, to a certain extent, both approaches share a similar general objective of assessing HWB, aiming at "a better understanding of what individuals value" (Frey et al., 2004: 382) and the conditions for achieving a "truly human life" (Nussbaum 2000: 72). In pursuit of this general objective, they try to identify the enabling aspects that would allow human beings to flourish. And yet, this seemingly obvious overlap in their object of research does not appear to be accompanied by any considerable acknowledgment of the vast work that has been produced in the two fields. It is in fact quite remarkable how both CA and SWB theories seem to turn their backs on each other's contributions. For instance, in Easterlin's (2003) "Building a Better Theory of Well-Being", he raises the question 'better than what?' His answer (2003: 1) is "better than the prevailing theories of well-being in psychology and economics" -and no single reference to the CA is made in his paper, despite its influence on economics and on human development work. Similarly, references to Utilitarianism, Hedonism, Preferences, etc in the CA literature do not link structural tenets of subjective well-being with current features of the SWB literature. But are these two groups of HWB approaches so different as their lack of mutual acknowledgment might suggest? Is it possible that both approaches could learn valid lessons from each other? Answers to these questions might be relevant for empirical research on HWB, with consequential policy relevance.

Our interest in exploring possible synergies between the CA and SWB is based, a priori, on three arguments. …

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