Human welfare to depend more on social factors than economic aspects

Benestar ICTA

This is apparent from the results of a study by researchers at the ICTA-UAB and the McGill University of Canada in which, for the first time, a mathematical approach was used to project the subjective well-being of the world’s population.


The changes in the perception of personal well-being that will take place in the next three decades will depend, on a global level, largely on social factors and not on macroeconomic aspects. This is apparent from the results of a pioneering study developed by researchers from the Institute of Science and Environmental Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the McGill University of Canada in which, for the first time, have used a mathematical approach to project the subjective well-being of the world’s population.

The study, recently published in the journal Nature Communications, offers an alternative to the projections based on readily-quantified material outcomes such as per capita income to assess the impacts on human welfare, and includes other dimensions of life that are critical but difficult to quantify due to subjectivity. The well-being measurement is the self-reported life evaluations from the Gallup World Poll, which in 2017 had a global average of 5.24 out of 10.

Researchers applied a dynamic statistical model that combines economic variables (material) such as GDP per capita and life expectancy, with social variables (non-material) such as freedom, corruption, social aids or support. With these variables, they were able to reproduce the most important current differences between countries, and use the observed changes between 2005 and 2016 to calibrate the model. This has enabled them to project scenarios for the self-reported life evaluations in 2050.

Results show that changes in macroeconomic variables tend to lead to modest improvements of global average life evaluations. In contrast, scenarios based on non-material variables project a 30% rise in future global average life evaluations (in the case of variables improving) or a 35% decrease (in the case of social factors quickly worsening).

This greater difference in "non-material" changes especially would affect the densely populated regions of India, China, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, since there is plenty of room for improvement in social matters.

“The results highlight the critical role of non-material factors such as social supports, freedoms, and fairness in determining the future of human well-being”, states ICTA-UAB researcher Eric Galbraith, who stresses that feasible changes in GDP are very unlikely to play an important role in changes of life self-evaluations within 30 years. “The observed changes during 2005 and 2016 show that non-material trends encompass more extreme positive and negative possibilities than the material trends”, the authors explain.

The authors warn that the greatest benefits to be made potentially over the next decades, as well as the most dangerous pitfalls to be avoided, lie in the domain of social fabric. According to Barrington-Leigh, “Long-run policies focused on income have narrow effects. If human well-being is the main goal of governments, their scarce resources must be destined to policies prioritising social aims."

Original article
Barrigton-Leigh C. & Galbraith E. (2019). Feasible future global scenarios for human life evaluations. Nature Communications, 10(1):161 DOI:


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