How’s Life?

By: Sabirah Oniyangi

If I asked you the simple question, “How is life?”, you’d probably consider many factors if you were going to give a true answer. You might consider your relationships, your job, your general mood and happiness, your future plans and your dreams and perhaps how much money you have. On any given day there are a variety of factors that might go into your perceived life satisfaction. And they matter.

In the development world, improving the quality of lives is often the primary goal. Whether it is through economic empowerment, access to healthcare or access to quality education. All of this work seeks to improve the lives of the people it serves. It is therefore surprising, that subjective well being is not often considered when determining what exactly goes into development programs.  

We know that through history, development has been imperialistic in its approach, often having a singular idea of what prosperity and growth look like. Many postcolonial scholars have deconstructed these notions and taken a critical look at what it means when growth, education and progress are looked at through a non-western lens. Is it truly development when the specific needs, as determined by the people experiencing them, cultures and desires aren’t taken into account? It begs the question, who is development done by, to and for? 

As we start to move to more community-led ideas of development, It’s imperative that we not only include the voices of locals, but that we also develop new tools. Income is not the only determinant of wealth, and development looks different in different places and should put the people at the center. Measuring Subjective Well-being can be one of the tools we use to achieve this.

Subjective Well-being might sound like a fancy name for happiness, but it’s much more than that. According to the OECD guidelines for measuring Subjective wellbeing, Subjective Well-being is defined as “Good mental states including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences.” This definition contains three main dimensions listed below:


Life Evaluation

A reflective assessment on a person’s life or some aspect of it


A person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured with reference to a particular point in time


A sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning

Recently the OECD has started to create guidelines and frameworks for how to measure Subjective Well-being. What is particularly noteworthy and specific about this measure is that it’s the people’s own view of their wellbeing that matters. That is, only the person being asked can provide evaluations. This is completely different from the way development has been approached in the past.

These measures have become increasingly important when determining quality of life. It is important that we begin to take into account other factors that influence well-being as these can give us so much more information and insight and therefore make programs more successful and ensure that the communities we are working with are placed at the center.

In Yoruba, the word “Ola” means wealth, but to characterize it as simply monetary wealth misses the true meaning of the word. Ola means a total wealth of spirit, richness of the mind, wealth in the things that make life truly meaningful such as dignity and honour. Subjective Well-being begins to capture the concept of “Ola”.

How’s Life?

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