Subjective well-being: What’s the worth?

Let’s Begin with an Exercise…

Look up from your screen and observe the things around you.

As I do so myself, it is not difficult to estimate the market value of the couch, rug, and even the land on which my cabin resides. If I were to have a yard sale tomorrow, each item could be priced with a bright orange sticker for potential buyers to assess and purchase.

“…it is not difficult to estimate the market value…”

Many appraisals of worth, similar to those that we just assigned our surrounding items, are based on the ideals supported by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Each object has a market value, which fluctuates with condition, use, and personal necessity for that thing. On a national level, our country’s resources can be assessed and quantified as Gross National Product (GNP). Simply put, everything that can be used has a worth.

“Subjective well-being: overall quality of life”.

As rational as the ideas of Gross Domestic and National Product seems, this system of assessment is flawed. Now that you have looked at the items around you, indulge me in a bit of introspection and think back to one of your happiest moments.

How do you place a value on that time? By GDP and GNP’s standards, there is no market value for the scene you just pictured or the feeling of satisfaction you may feel upon reflection. Your happiest moment can instead be categorized under a non-market (or non-use) value. Though you cannot assign a price to it, that instant of happiness adds merit to your life and increases your subjective well-being, or quality of life.

In his 1968 address to the University of Kansas, Robert Kennedy encompassed this idea of non-market value best in saying,

Robert Kennedy on Gross National Product (GNP)

“…gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Often our most valued moments are those that have no market value. This week, I have begun to delve into the literature surrounding subjective well-being (SWB), which I previously alluded to as our overall quality of life. This concept of SWB can be applied in a natural setting as well, despite our attempts to place monetary value to resources such as land, water, and forests. Though these aspects of nature are factored into our GNP, there is an element of worth that we cannot account for with simple market value. For example, many people will donate to rainforest conservation funds even though a large portion of those donors will never set foot in the rainforest themselves. The worth lies in the existence of the forest instead their use of that land.

Oregon Marine Reserves (image by Oregon State Parks).

This summer I am studying subjective well-being surrounding the protection of marine areas on the Oregon coast in the form of five marine reserves. Through administration of survey instruments tailored to our nearby fishing communities, I am working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine the economic and non-market values of these marine areas. Through the use of choice experiments, we aim to gain a more in depth understanding of the subjective well-being of residents in Oregon coast communities as they relate to forest and marine preservation.

I won’t disclose all of the “good stuff” yet, but stay tuned to this blog. I will be updating weekly with photos, articles, and summaries of my time here.


~Sarah Coffin~


Author and Oregon Sea Grant Scholar Sarah Coffin at Owen Rose Garden in Eugene, Oregon in June, 2017.



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About Sarah Ann Coffin

Sarah is an undergraduate student at California State University, Monterey Bay. In fall 2017, she will graduate with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Statistics. After graduation, Sarah plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Social Psychology to further study how psychological concepts can be applied to encourage environmental care. By understanding what encourages individual environmental concern, Sarah hopes to provide communities with effective methods to promote daily environmentally friendly behaviors and overall improved environmental care. After gaining experience in the field, Sarah looks forward to returning to the university system as a professor in psychology.

1 thought on “Subjective well-being: What’s the worth?

  1. Great post explaining an extremely important concept! Putting those science communication skills to work. Being able to express the value of non-market values has proven to be extremely difficult, and the work you’re doing with subjective wellbeing survey research will certainly add significant value to this field of research.

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