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The mismeasure of progress: Is the West really the best?

By Richard Eckersley - posted Thursday, 5 May 2016

There are several streams of evidence that expose the limitations of subjective wellbeing, and cast doubt on how we currently conceptualise and measure progress and development. These are: research using wider or more diverse measures of personal health and wellbeing; what people think, not about their own lives, but about the overall quality of life and society as a whole; and people's views of the future of society and humanity. For example:

  • The great majority of adolescents and young adults in the developed world say they are happy, healthy and satisfied with their lives, and their life expectancy continues to rise. Yet other research indicates their wellbeing has declined because of increased rates of chronic physical and mental illness. A 2010US study by Jean Twenge and her colleagues compared the results of a widely used psychological test over a period of 70 years, and found a steady decline in the mental health of college students: compared to 1938, five times as many college students in 2007 scored high enough on the test to indicate psychological problems.
  • Australia ranks high in progress indices, including life satisfaction, yet in a 2015 survey, conducted by Omnipoll on my behalf, when asked about quality of life in Australia, taking into account social, economic and environmental conditions and trends, only 16 per cent of Australians thought life was getting better; 35 per cent thought it was staying about the same; and 49 per cent thought it was getting worse.
  • In a 2015 study of 'societal unease', Netherlands researcher Eefje Steenvoorden argues that it is 'a latent concern among citizens in contemporary western countries about the precarious state of society'. This concern arises from the 'perceived unmanageable deterioration' of five fundamental aspects of society: distrust in human capability (to make improvements and overcome problems), loss of ideology, decline of political power, decline of community, and socioeconomic vulnerability. Societal unease is only weakly related to happiness, proving, the author says, that personal happiness is clearly distinct from societal unease, and that 'high levels of private contentment are not to be mistaken for public contentment'.
  • A recent study that I co-authored with Melanie Randle at the University of Wollongong, investigated the perceived probability of threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, across the four countries, 54 per cent of people rated the risk of 'our way of life ending' within the next 100 years at 50 per cent or greater, while 24 per cent rated the risk of 'humans being wiped out' at 50 per cent or greater. Three-quarters (78 per cent) agreed 'we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world'.

These examples all illustrate the importance of the psychosocial dynamics of progress. Unless we pay more attention to them, we will continue to miss too much of what matters, limiting our options and prospects. We will not be able to devise and implement solutions that match the scale of the problems we face.


At the deepest level, we need to change the myths, beliefs and values by which we define ourselves, our lives, and our goals. The necessary transformation can be compared to that in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment: from the medieval mind, dominated by religion and the afterlife, to the modern mind, focused on material life here on earth. Research into human development and progress needs to allow, even encourage, the conceptual space for a cultural transformation as profound as that which gave rise to modernity in the first place.

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This article was first published on Pearls and Irritations.

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About the Author

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher. His work explores progress and wellbeing.

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