Academic journal article Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland

The Barrington Lecture 2009: Well-Being under Conditions of Abundance: Ireland from 1990-2007

Academic journal article Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland

The Barrington Lecture 2009: Well-Being under Conditions of Abundance: Ireland from 1990-2007

Article excerpt


Saorstat Eireann came into being in 1921, with a population of approximately 3 million, the vast majority of whom are now deceased. Since then, over five million people have been born in the state, and approximately 3.7 million Irish-born individuals now reside here, the remainder having died or emigrated. (2) Due to a declining fertility rate in the last quarter of the 20th century accompanied by an increasing life expectancy, the current population is aging and while the aging pyramid in 2009 still has a wide base compared to other industrialised countries, the 2050 aging pyramid reveals a picture of a society in which aging issues will predominate. This sets at least part of the context of the paper, an attempt to understand, well-being and health in the context of a relatively wealthy aging society.

In particular, this paper examines the health and well-being of the Irish population in the 1990s. This period, popularly referred to as the Celtic Tiger, saw unprecedented increases in economic activity in Ireland. Using statistical data from administrative and survey sources, I examine whether this period of growth improved well-being and welfare in Ireland. The paper draws from theories of the development of societies such as those of Fogel and Easterlin as well as theories from behavioural economics and econometric techniques to examine this question. In particular, I examine the extent to which Ireland fits into a pattern of declining correlation between GDP and well-being at later stages of development, a phenomenon known as the Easterlin Paradox. I also examine the extent to which individual well-being is predicted by income as compared to other aspects of welfare such as health and employment status.

The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Section 2 examines the modern literature on well-being, outlining measurement constructs and key debates. Section 3 examines the context of Irish economic growth and health improvements in the 20th century. Section 4 examines in detail the well-being of the Irish population in the late 20th century, assessing how Ireland fits with relation to the Easterlin paradox. Section 5 concludes with the relevance of these results for the current economic downturn, relevance of the study of well-being for ongoing policy and a discussion of the limitations of the study.


The interaction between well-being and the economy is a question for no one discipline. The increasing interplay between economics and psychology is another contextual factor motivating this paper. Such an interaction is increasingly prevalent, with modern economics journals becoming increasingly dominated by accounts of human behaviour grounded in behavioural economics, which attempts to incorporate psychological evidence into economic theories. The awarding of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics to Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman is illustrative of the increasingly strong influence that psychology is having on economics. Areas such as the psychology of time discounting, identity, emotions and neuroscience are being increasingly explored to understand how people behave and how people are affected by economic fluctuations. The beginning of the 20th century saw a strong effort to unite the two fields in the study of human well-being. Several thinkers sought to ground economic theories in evidence about how people derived well-being. In particular, the work of psychophysicists such as Fechner was explored to examine how people derive pleasure and pain from objects, the experimental equivalent of the Benthamite idea of utilitarianism. It was clear though that this union was not to last, and that economics and psychology were to tread very different paths in understanding well-being and welfare.

However, more recently well-being has become once again a major topic of interest in economics (e.g. Layard 2005, Blanchflower & Oswald 2004). …

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