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photo: Barrington-Leigh Dr Chris Barrington-Leigh
Assistant Professor at McGill University

Understanding the effect of policy on national wellbeing

March 2017
Despite dozens of years of research, we still know precious little about what policies increase national wellbeing.Response
There's some truth here, in that because wellbeing (life satisfaction) is always, in principle, affected by everything, it will always be extremely difficult to isolate effects of policies, especially when they are scaled up to the national level. Beyond that, though, it seems we know an enormous amount from the literature, not with 100% confidence, but with at least as much confidence as we know the traditionally-measured effects of other macroeconomic, social, and investment policies. These policies relate to everything from unemployment insurance and labour investment policies, to child support, income redistribuiton, central bank policies, tax systems, education, and medicine. Indeed, convincing evidence from the SWB literature seems to implicate almost any policy one can think of, including the process by which we carry out management within government itself. Disagree strongly

In order to find out what raises national wellbeing, we need to have thousands of randomised controlled trials in all major areas of national policy.Response
RCTs are important and should be explored when they are feasible and ethical. However, they are particularly difficult for SWB and national-scale policy (see my comments above), and we know plenty without them. We do not need a "the science is not settled" argument for many areas of policy where the implications of SWB literature are a consistent chorus that point in a clear general direction. There are enormous opportunity costs of waiting to implement good policy, so a creative approach is needed in order to translate SWB insights into opportunities at all levels of organizations. Indeed, I believe that in the context of such complex and all-encompassing outcomes as SWB, when there are big differences across observational units (say, countries), one can start by simply adjusting course towards the policies, in general, that are in effect in the most successful units. For example, while it is incumbent on researchers to better isolate causality in accounting for the SWL success of the Denmarks of the world (and to always stay mindful that the past does not ensure future trends, and that cautious because simultaneous conflicting factors may mask causality), we should immediately look at steering our ships somewhat in the Scandinavian (say) direction for SWB-relevant factors which are being treated by policy there, simply because their blend of policies is doing noticeably better than some others in producing measurably good lives.Disagree

Wellbeing Effects of Anonymous Donation of Eggs and Sperm

February 2017
Donating gametes (eggs, sperm) via clinics as anonymous donors is one of the highest return-to-effort things individuals can do to increase overall wellbeing.Response
To mention egg and sperm donation in the same thought is too big a juxtaposition. They've nearly nothing in common from the point of view of the donor. While there is evidence that we get a well-being boost from anonymous donations of money to charitable causes, there is plenty of evidence that pro-social activities done with others and with meaning are better for well-being.Disagree strongly

The right of a child to know who their donor was when they turn 18 outweighs (in an overall wellbeing sense) the possibility that this right-to-know leads to a shortage of donors and reduces the number of donor-conceived children.Response
I don't know enough about this, research or otherwise, nor its sigificance, to have an opinion. I doubt knowing who one's biological parent is matters as much for well-being as countless other childhood factors.Neither agree nor disagree

Organisational structures on workers' wellbeing

January 2017
Employees in more hierarchical organisations have higher levels of wellbeing than those of flatter organisations.Response
I think this might be different for the domain 'satisfaction with work' and 'life satisfaction', since, for instance, more responsibility at work is associated with the former but less so with the latter. Overall, I'm not sure of the relationship between trust in the workplace and the strength of hierarcy. There is work done to link work trust to subjective well-being, and my guess is that coworker and manager trust tends to be higher in horizontal organizations.Neither agree nor disagree

Tilting the tax and subsidy mix in favour of more hierarchical organisations (in a revenue neutral manner) would probably improve the wellbeing of employees.Response
This seems unlikely. The Whitehall stress study has been analyzed for psychiatric outcomes along with many others. While conclusions are a bit more subtle than just thinking about "more hierarchical" (eg. Effort-reward imbalance is a problem), having control over what you do at work is good for general/life outcomes. In addition, pay discrepancies may be linked with management hierarchies; incentivizing horizontal organizations might reduce pay inequities, which have a sketchy or indirect link to lower life satisfaction at the population level. If sense of belonging to one's workplace enterprise is also stronger in more horizontal structures, which seems likely, then this positive identity would also be a strong supporter of higher life satisfaction.Disagree

Wellbeing and Public Holidays

December 2016
Do you think that populations on average have higher wellbeing during major festive periods like Christmas?Response
Major festive periods have both extra supports and extra challenges for wellbeing, so I think this question must be answered empirically and, most importantly, does not relate strongly to the next question. There is some evidence that the high salience of materialism at Christmas (in particular) predicts lower well-being. Also in contrast to the obvious benefits of social and family time can come an extra feeling of isolation for those who are weak on those supports. Speculatively, that would be an instance of reference effects in the social domain.Neither agree nor disagree

Do you think on balance that average wellbeing would rise if there were more mandatory public holidays in your country?Response
Working more (or as much) in response to having higher productivity seems to be an important collective action problem for well-being as well as material impacts on the world. Mandatory slowing down of the market-labour race is likely a solution.Agree strongly