What Consists of Well-Being? The Non-Study Study

Published June 26, 2013

The Social Science Research Center has posted a lengthy report on what consists of good human development & well-being (read happiness) in the states.  In the Measure of America 2013–2014, the authors use statistics of earnings,education level, life expectancy, and the like to come up with an index.  The authors then rank states and cities as to how they measure up to that index.  It is a rudimentary method:  the states and localities that have high life spans, great access to education (and are educated), and have high earnings must foster greater well-being.  Right?

Despite the fact there are several potential variables left out of this analysis,  well-being (or human happiness) is not all materialistic–it seems to me Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, spoke of the virtues as being important to human life.  No this study cares not for magnanimity, temperance, moderation, and any of a whole host of virtues that contribute to a truly happy life.  Further, this study assumes that a long life is a good thing absent any consideration of dignity, or many of the other things that most people believe contribute to happiness:  a loving family, a loving spouse or partner, health in its original meaning of the word, etc.

But even if these data were properly constructed, the study is nearly wholly absent of what we properly call social science research.  Indeed, it is a rather pedestrian use of stats and data.  There is not one regression, not one multivariate analysis that might allow the authors to draw the conclusions they want to draw.  In other words, this study is not scientific by any stretch of the imagination because it fails to demonstrate correlations of any sort.

When it comes to assessing how cities do in regard to well-being, it is mostly north-eastern metro areas that win out, while many southern cities that actually have jobs lose.  If you want to talk well-being, people tend to vote with their feet.  While places like Florida and the Southwest are gaining, most places that the study lauds are losing population.  And by the way, who wouldn’t want to live in Tampa (a city the authors place at the bottom of the metro rankings), compared to NewYork (which is at the top of their list yet has a higher unemployment rate).  As a native of Los Angeles, I will take palm trees, sandy beaches, and tasty waves over New York.  That’s a personal choice that would make me happy, and, dare I say, contribute to my overall good well-being.

Yet, there is more in this report:  the authors believe that fracking industries bring with them all sorts of social evils:

But are extractive industries good for human development? These jobs typically pay well compared to other jobs in the rural communities where extractive industries are located or other jobs that workers without college degrees could secure elsewhere. In addition, the influx of workers supports other local businesses. But the higher pay that workers earn is offset by dangerous working conditions, lack of job security (market changes can have big and sudden impacts), and relatively short careers (these jobs are often physically arduous and thus best suited to the young) without much room for advancement. Fracking boom towns have seen skyrocketing rents; poor, overcrowded living conditions and housing shortages; traffic, sanitation, and other environmental impacts; increased violence among workers and against women; and problems with substance abuse. Several media outlets have highlighted how the concentration of young, transient men in boom towns has created an atmosphere that many women and long-time residents find threatening. Thus, the picture is mixed at best.

This study shows no evidence or data to support the claim made above, but that has not stopped at least one site from praising the “findings“.  We should look for the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia to wade into these waters with more reliable research on fracking in the future.  However, as a professor who teaches social research methods, I would have to contend that the study could be improved immensely.  There may be a relationship between some of the variables noted in the study.  However, the report does not make an effort to show it.  As a matter of hard science, and soft science, it should be placed in the category of fail.