Can I get a little less life satisfaction, please?

by | December 2023

We are pleased to share a new joint working paper between HLI and the Wellbeing Research Centre, Oxford University. In it, Dr Michael Plant explores the challenges of the nature and plausibility of the life satisfaction theory (LST) of wellbeing.

This is the summary of the working paper. Click the button above to read the pdf of the full paper.


Since Parfit (1984), philosophers have standardly held there are three theories of wellbeing: hedonism, desire theories, and the objective list. Some have argued this classification omits a distinct, plausible theory of wellbeing based on life satisfaction. The life satisfaction theory (LST) is notably prominent outside philosophy, with a growing chorus advocating for self-reported life satisfaction to be a, or the, outcome measure for policymaking. In this paper, I investigate the nature and plausibility of LST. I argue that while happiness and life satisfaction are often conflated, LST is best understood as a type of desire theory and not as a distinct account of wellbeing. To evaluate LST, I initially consider two current objections and argue they are little threat. I then present two seriously troubling objections. One is whimsicality: LST implies subjects can determine how well or badly their lives are going for any reason and at any time. The other that it leaves us with too few subjects: it means that, for entities who cannot make whole-life evaluations, such as infants and many animals, nothing can go better or worse for them. I conclude (1) the life satisfaction theory is implausible (but do not argue for an alternative here) and (2) life satisfaction surveys are a useful, but non-ideal measure of wellbeing; we should remain open to, and explore the implications of, other metrics.