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Subjective Well-being as Public Policy
 Tool to Prevent Future Civil Conflicts

Public Policy Proposal for the Government of Lebanon

Honorable Minister, Yassin Jaber
Ministry of Economy
Republic of Lebanon

A new economic and IT tool to help policy makers

Samih Safieh, GM, SAAB
Board Member, Lebanese Association of CPAs


Yones M,
10 -12 –1998

Executive Summary

This analysis paper offers government officials a new perspective into the main risks to the state’s integrity and on how to immunize the socioeconomic and political conflicts.

Furthermore, it highlights the social and psychological costs of the civil war and proposes the adoption of subjective well-being (SWB) as a key public policy goal and a monitoring tool that serves as an early warning system of potential civil unrest.

The paper also recommends a template based on proprietary research to help implement and customize the tool for government needs.

The project funding is proposed as a Private Public Partnership.

Key Concepts:

Public policy, civil war, subjective well-being (SWB) survey, happiness economics, balance economics, socioeconomic development model


Happiness Economics and the Civil Conflict

Why study happiness as a subject of public policy, civil war and peace?

Happy people do not wage wars. Angry people do. Happy people do not destroy their countries and risk their well-being. Angry people do. Anger is an emotional pressure that is almost always stronger than rational thought. In fact, if the anger is intense enough, it can corrupt the thinking of its host to rationalize destructive or immoral actions, regardless if the actions are justified or not. The other problem with anger is that it can lead to overreaction, which in turn leads to a vicious cycle of retaliatory actions until both parties exhaust their assets, resources and energies.

Psychological health and well-being are both and the cause and effect of socioeconomic well-being.

From a philosophical point of view, what is the use of a rule of law or a government policy if it makes people unhappy? What are the survival chances of a government body or a socioeconomic unit, if its making its own people unhappy for a long period of time?

In short, the integrity of a state or its government is directly proportional to the citizens’ well-being and overall happiness. The best predictor of a stable socioeconomic unit — be it a family, a tribe, an organization, a community, a state or an international system — is the happiness of its members. It is the balance (equilibrium) between the supply of opportunities for growth and demand among its members belonging to different subsystems, be it ethnic, geographic, age groups, economic class, etc.

As agents of a socioeconomic system, most people seek opportunities to live in a balanced environment with a fair and just system. Most people are not concerned with political power unless it gives them access to more opportunities for socioeconomic growth. A change in the human psyche and emotions of the people in a socioeconomic system is a reflection of the imbalance of power between its subsystems. If that imbalance deepens, both sides of the imbalance will rationalize their extreme and sometime immoral actions, to minimize the power gap, thus leading in many cases to dysfunctional social and political behavior. When getting or preserving power becomes absolute, then suffering of the masses is inevitable. When the economics of fear and division is more profitable than the economics of peace, trust and unity, there is no hope for peace and development and the only option is civil or international conflict.

In multi-ethnic or multi-sectarian societies, the only way to secure a lasting peace and prosperity is to design a balanced, adaptable, secular and democratic power-sharing system, where the main incentives for the political players, including votes, are designed to promote national unity and national performance-based rewards instead of narrower incentives based on partisan, sectarian, ethnic, tribal, economic or geographic grouping. 

In the case of the Lebanese civil war, all other political solutions, including the 1990 peace accord, are likely to act as a temporary sedative before the forces and dynamics of the system change and a new form of pressure is formed to start a new conflict. When the pressure of imbalance is high, the cost of inaction becomes higher than the cost of action and conflict will arise.

One of the  biggest mistake rulers can make is to ignore or underestimate people’s unhappiness. In truly democratic countries, the pressure from unhappiness is relieved through voting and fluid change of power, whereas in non-democratic countries, unhappiness is expressed through more violent civil conflicts. If strong enough, the conflict could threaten the integrity of the government and the state.

The Psychological and Social Cost of the Lebanese Civil War

During the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, the state, or lack of it, produced one of the most discontented generations and dysfunctional societies in modern history. The civil war ended in 1990, yet most Lebanese suffer from collective trauma, evident by mass-pessimism, cynicism, and chronic stress levels. On a psychological level, the conflict-generation who did not have the chance to leave the country is generally easily irritated, quick-tempered, and mistrustful. It is common to see symptoms of stress inducing dysfunctional thinking and behavior ranging from irrational fear or blame of other communities to individual frustration manifested as rage at homes or in the streets. Many of them constantly complain of difficult living conditions. Most of the youth cannot wait to immigrate to another country.

On a more positive note, human mental states are adaptable. Those that managed to leave the country and find job opportunities elsewhere report better satisfactions with life and family because of increased sense of economic and physical security. They have healthier attitudes towards other Lebanese and nationalities and are happier than their peers who still live in the country. It is easy to see that the root of the problem is neither cultural nor religious; the root cause of the problem is the political and economic imbalance that shapes the individual and collective psyche of social groups along with the value system and culture.

The Subjective Well-being Polls

In order to design a simple tool to enable the government to monitor the happiness economics and well-being of its citizens, we conducted a survey made of three parts to try to understand the general states of happiness and unhappiness and the driving forces behind mental states and behavior. The survey also serves as a guide for public policy makers to address issues in various areas before they become problematic

Part 1: Progress, Hope and Outlook

General Survey Question:

How do you see your living conditions compared to the past and the future?

 81% believe there has been progress when comparing their living conditions to the civil war.

 28% believe there has been an overall improvement in their lives in the past 5 years.

 9% believe that their lives are going to improve significantly over the next 5 years.

Part 2: Assessment of Overall Mental and Emotional Health

General Survey Question:

If you were to look back at your emotional state in the past 12 months, would you say you were happy (positive), unhappy (negative) or neutral about your living conditions?

Also describe the positive, negative and neutral feelings in your own words.

11% positive (happy, trusting, having fun, etc.)

55% neutral or “used to it” or “gave up” or ‘’do not think about it anymore”, etc.

34% negative (unhappy, stressed, depressed, struggling, angry, etc.)

The overwhelming majority saw progress in their lives, relative to the civil war,  yet, only a minority felt happy, secure about the future and trusting of each other.

Despite the peace accord and massive reconstruction efforts, and growing job and income opportunities most citizens reported stress, irritation and distrust of the government and the society in general.

This data appear counter-intuitive at first; most people are generally optimistic about their future. Most people have hope, even in harsh living conditions. Hope is a psychological mechanism that sustains life. What is the use of living, learning, working and investing, if one is not hopeful?

Another well-being deficit is the lack of trust. People are unlikely to take risks, invest, start a business, or engage other members of the society, if they do not trust others or the future.

A critical turning point for a socioeconomic cycle is when about half of the key population segments is less hopeful or less trusting. If hope of a good life and trust in the ability of the local government do not recover quickly, people are likely to leave their communities or countries in search of a better life somewhere else. This explain immigration flows between villages and cities and country borders

Looking at public statistics of the Lebanese civil war, the conflict has killed or injured about half a million Lebanese of a total three million population, and has caused massive destruction of homes and personal properties. That means almost every family has been directly traumatized through loss of a relative, a friend or valuable property. During the seventeen years that the war lasted, the population was exposed to chronic violence inflicting major psychological changes that are difficult to overcome even today. This could explain the increase in migration, brain drain, and rise of local extremism fueled by anger and feeling of injustice (power and economic imbalance among social groups). Lebanon has more Lebanese living outside the state than inside.

Even after eight years since the end of the civil war, most Lebanese suffer from collective psychological trauma. It is also an early warning that if the socioeconomic conditions are not improved, another cycle of socioeconomic decline and government dysfunction is highly likely. The expected result will be even greater instability, brain drain and.


art 3: Surveying adults with a random sample of interviews across different life areas.

General Survey Question:

What are the top causes of stresses and/or worries in your life? List up to 10 sources.

Key Findings:

All the stated sources fall into the following six areas: (% of surveyed stress Area)

79% Government (political corruption, political instability, lack of rule of law, sectarianism etc.)

61% Physical Safety (conflict with neighboring countries, civil war, crime, violence etc.)

58% Income (unemployment, inflation, cost of living etc.)

41% Social (work-related stress, social trust, affording to start or support a family, education etc.)

32% Health (lack of affordable and quality healthcare etc.)

31% Environment (dirt, pollution, water, traffic, overcrowding, lack of municipal planning, etc.)


For the most part, the survey reveals several policy key blind spots.

The government suffers chronic trust deficit. Neglecting to address the stress sources will likely worsen the situation over the next decade. If the governance system and its policies are improperly, designed, it is only a matter of time before a major socioeconomic crisis can threaten the very existence of government and sometimes the social fabric of the country. The best way to build a stable government system is by designing a more balanced and equitable socioeconomic development policy framework that allocates investments to promote peace and balanced prosperity across all socioeconomic dimensions and across all sections of the population. The only way to have lasting peace and prosperity of any state is to design and maintain a system with a flexible enough structure that balances the changing demographic, technological or economics forces; in other words, allowing free socioeconomic mobility for all sections of the population. The same tool can be used at international development agencies. The Lebanese state can serve a model state.

Policy Recommendations for Government Leaders

What is the best way to immunize against future civil conflicts and disintegration of a socioeconomic system?

A balanced and well-designed happiness policy framework might be the best way to achieve peace and prosperity both domestically and internationally. Understanding well-being and happiness economics is a prerequisite for designing sustainable national peace and prosperity.

 1. Instituting a new subjective well-being survey that identifies public policy blind spots and serves as an early warning system that addresses weak areas instead of reacting too late to civil unrest. The survey can score each individual dimension and the total composite score of all dimensions to give individual and collective satisfaction monitoring.

 2. The survey can also help inform policy decisions and stabilize growth and socioeconomic cycles.

 3. We also propose conducting SWB benchmarking with earlier periods on annual basis including various geographic areas and demographics groups to help identify and clarify improvement areas as well as needed government policy.

 4. The independence of the researchers conducting the survey is critical to avoid bias and get accurate results.

 5. Policy makers can use the collected data to designing a balanced well-being development policy system and institutions. Long-term, it is important for the Lebanese state to adapt the constitution, laws and regulations to achieve a balanced system that allow equal opportunities across ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and geographic borders. Enacting and enforcing equal employment laws, meritocracy-based socioeconomic benefits system, and multi-sectarian political parties are the only way out of endless cycles of conflict. The United States a practical example of how a diverse society and thrive based on an open system that allow socioeconomic mobility across various demographic groups.

 6. The government leadership team is the most important asset of any state and can be its worst liability. Changing the old conflict-oriented mindset and the population culture can be a huge burden. The leaders must be able to create new laws to establish new incentives for shared development that outweighs the incentives of violent or political conflicts financed by insiders and outsiders. Despite political slogans of independence, powerful state actors influence the weaker ones.

 7. Various statistics estimate that about seven to eight million Lebanese live outside Lebanon, i.e. more than double the Lebanese inside the country. They are mostly expatriates and immigrants who worked hard and became successful in foreign lands. Many of them financially support their families in Lebanon. With a government policy to facilitate their comeback, they can become a stronger force of optimism and growth. Creating policies to attract them back to the country and to support their business initiatives as well as tapping into their knowledge and experience in public and private sectors can make a real difference in accelerating and building a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous state.

 8. Changing the education curriculum to produce a new generation that values peace, prosperity and tolerance more than tribal, economic, sectarian, or political ideologies. Promoting critical and objective thinking rather than biased and selfish thinking at the expense of others. Focusing on creating a new culture with new role models of entrepreneurs and economic champions instead of militaristic heroes will favor growth over destruction.

 9. Enforcing the rule of law and promoting real independence of the judicial system to help recreate trust and reinstate accountability of government employees against corruption. Trust is critical to investment promotion and socioeconomic development.

 10. Using e-government and e-schools to accelerate the implementation of these new policies. The advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) will enable government agencies to measure and monitor the progress of development programs and budgets and provide government leaders with policy scorecards to address key policies in near real-time

Research and consulting engagements result in a deliverable document that ends with a recommendation section that are limited to an educational value; however, in order to achieve the stated objective, proper execution of strategies is critical. The most difficult part is the knowledge-implementation gap. We can help the government to design and customize the new development model and build the necessary ICT tools to manage and monitor the performance of the new initiative.


Study Definitions

Happiness Economics vs. GDP Economics vs. Subjective Well-being vs. Happiness

For the purpose of our study, Subjective Well-being (SWB) is used both as a definition and synonym for happiness. In psychological studies, authors and researchers to define happiness as a feeling such as joy, satisfaction, and pleasure. Feelings can be a product of internal thinking and values or a product of external changes that cause an increase or decrease of stress. In an economics and public policy studies, we see happiness is neither pleasure (hedonic) nor the absence of displeasure (utilitarianism).We see feelings as indicators of the adaptability of an individual or groups to changes in the living environment. We see happiness as psychological health, which means mental and emotional well-being. Well-being is a product of inner (subjective) and outer (objective) factors. One key indicator of psychological health is satisfaction in life (socioeconomic and environmental living conditions). Another key indicator is the success of the individual in managing one’s life and emotions as a result to the changes in the living conditions. Although every individual is unique and capable of independent thinking and feelings, a person’s general psychological health is to a large degree a product or a function of his or her interaction with socioeconomic living conditions including, but not limited to, education, income, media, politics, urban living spaces, housing, government transactions, taxes and myriad of other factors.

Happiness economics is currently used to describe the study of the correlation between income and happiness. We believe this definition is incomplete. Happiness economic, for the purpose of this research, is the application of economic laws to the study of psychological and social health and behavior. Well-being and happiness are multidimensional, and our goal is to create an integrated research framework to study the interaction and weight of each dimension and how it contributes to subjective well-being overall. We believe subjective well-being is directly connected and influenced by physical well-being and vice versa.

Research Design and Engineering:

In the past seven decades, several pioneering research projects studied subjective well-being and happiness from various angles. Among the well-known include studying moods (Flugel 1925), income correlation with general life satisfaction (Abramovitz 1959, Esterlin 1974), or values of hopes and fears (Cantril 1965 , Wilson 1967, Diener 1984). Most studies ask questions such as: What happiness means to you individually or how happy you are at this moment or in general? These studies are insightful, but lack concrete application framework for public policymaking and they are not used for prosperity and peacemaking applications.

Our approach is that subjective and objective well-being is a product of multidimensional dynamic system. Therefore, public policy should be multidimensional to address all the key factors. Happiness should be correlated to more than one factor at the same time to understand the weight of each factors and who they influence each other.

Our theory is that the self-evaluation and rating (subjective) well-being and happiness is a function of the intensity, direction (positive or negative) and speed of change in an external living environment. The goal thus is not to attempt to reach an absolute numerical value but a balance of changing dynamics between the forces of supply and demand.

Living conditions are the responsibilities of the policy makers and elected officials. The improvement of living conditions, measurable also by subjective well-being indicators, should be the main goal of any public policy. However, little attention and research is paid to the interaction between public policy and subjective well-being. It is our believe that public policies have far more important weight on well-being than the internal ability of citizens to adapt their views or learn new skills to make use of opportunities and overcome the limitations and burdens of their living conditions. We found no detailed study, policy framework or research tool in current literature that addresses the well-being of citizens from that perspective.

Challenges with the subjective aspect of the research

Taking the above definition and approach, the word “Subjective”, for the purpose of this study, is inner evaluation of specific aspects of life such as living conditions, workplace, retirement savings, education, etc. For example, the question about satisfaction with health is not only about a person’s assessment of his or her own health, but the access to quality and affordable health services.

Another distinction of our research methods is that the questions are designed to be secular, thus eliminating cultural and religious biases that render other studies less reliable. The reality is that most of the world population is religious, although to varying degrees. Most religions in their original teachings promote modesty and minimization of desires and ambitions. To understand traditional religions (vs. newly reformed versions in the West), one has only to visit the Mosque, Church, Temple and Ashram. India is a great research field for it is a mix of all faiths practicing freely. For example, Buddhism promotes the value of material detachments, while “Attachment” is considered the root cause of suffering. Islam, promotes the value of “Zuhd”, or detachment from the desires of rich life;  Christianity’s famous bible verse "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."; or Judaism (Tzniut) promotes modesty and humility.

In their old forms, all religions essentially view today’s ambitions and desires as a cause for suffering and complications. On the other hand, in the more secular Western culture, desires, ambitions and wealth accumulation are celebrated and seen as the engines of innovation and growth. In the West, religious teaching is adapting to promote financial growth as a desirable behavior. Traditional religious values are viewed by many economic development professionals as anti-growth values.

Therefore, depending on which values the community subscribe to, one can predict their socioeconomic policies and performance.

A more specific example is based on a first-hand experience of the author studying and living in Eastern cultures (India from 1986-1991), the concept of happiness and ideal living environment can be very different from one city to another even within the same country. Take the population of Goa, India has considerable amount of Christians that are more westernized and ambitious and have higher expectations of standards of living, educational goals etc. Their values and goals, and therefore their level of satisfaction with different aspects of their life are different from other certain communities like Hindus, Buddhists, Jainism. One specific example is the states of Sikkim and Shillong whose population is closer to Nepal and Bhutan and are predominantly Buddhists. They emphasize simplification of life and minimizing desires. Their basic individual goals from life are the same (housing, cars love, marriage, education, security, etc), but the priorities and degree of desire are drastically different. Therefore, the value placed on each item in life in relation to how they spend their time and energy is different.

The tiny state of Lebanon is the same, the values can be different from one city population to another. A westernized Christian village might view the development of nightclubs and alcoholic beverage factories as positive economic development projects, but a Muslim village might consider them as a source of moral degradation.

How then can we overcome the biases of the research’s subject?

The answer might be to simply clarify and focus on the basic human needs instead of questions that might be influenced by culture, heritage, tradition or religion. Humans’ basic needs are the same, regardless of their culture, they all want to secure financial stability and a good healthy life for themselves and their loved ones. Therefore, all research questions and measurements are designed to focus on the basic human needs and common denominators. They are designed to eliminate variations caused by cultural or religious beliefs.

Survey Sample Notes:

The pilot survey chose a sample of 250 random adults from both genders aged 22-60, about 50 from each of the major cities and suburbs, including Beirut, Jounieh, Saida, Tripoli, and Nabatieh.

Statistical numbers rounded.

Despite the breakthrough insights, the study has some drawbacks. The survey sample is rather small, and a larger study is needed to see if the patterns hold among different demographics; however, the study does provide compelling anecdotal evidence of the mental states in relationship to public policy and civil conflict.

To learn more, please call:

M. Yones,

Senior Consultant, MTCG

Subjective Well-being Public Policy Tool (Microsoft Word Copy - Rich Text Format)

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