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Member Highlight: Jan Ott

Jan Ott, researcher at the World Database of Happiness (WDH), part of the Erasmus Economics Research Organization (EHERO) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) in the Netherlands.

Describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies.

I studied sociology and law at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and specialized in social economic policies, constitutional law, and public administration. I worked as a policy adviser for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment and was involved in consultations with employers’ organizations and labour unions, e.g. about the promotion of entrepreneurship and employability, the reduction of labour market discrepancies, and the evaluation of public institutions and policies. I participated as a government representative in conferences of the International Labour Organization (ILO), for example on Tripartite consultations and Job creation in small and medium sized enterprises. Since 2004 I work as a social researcher and co-worker of Ruut Veenhoven at the World Database of Happiness of the EUR. In 2012 I finished my dissertation An Eye on Happiness; happiness as an additional goal for citizens and governments. At the end of 2020 I finished my follow-up book Beyond Economics; happiness as a standard in our personal life and in politics. I am in particular interested In the impact of actual living conditions and the quality of public governance on the quality of life.

What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?

I am, like most people of my age (72), still horrified by the atrocities in the second World War.  We must do everything we can to make sure Auschwitz will never happen again. When I was young I was inclined to look primarily at the protection of human rights in this context, e.g. equality before the law without discrimination. Later I found that this ambition is too defensive and limited, and that we should try to minimize frustration and aggressiveness in general, and in a pro-active way. So I became interested in quality of life studies. This is a big step because ‘quality’ always implies the selection and application of normative standards. So we always have to pay attention to the underlying normativity of quality of life studies. One additional complication is that there is subjective quality as experienced by the people themselves, and there is objective quality as defined by experts like physicians, ecologists, economists, psychologists, and philosophers. One remark about this terminology: I use the terms happiness, subjective well-being and subjective quality of life as synonyms, as opposed to objective well-being and objective quality of life as defined by experts.

What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QoL researchers?

Erasmus once said: I would rather give advice than dogma. I am, for some very good reasons, even more modest: I would rather give suggestions than advice!

First suggestion: mind the distinction between subjective and objective realities and between subjective and objective observations!

The qualifications subjective and objective are used in two different ways. In an ontological way: subjective realities are realities as experienced in our consciousness, like happiness, optimism, trust, and emotions in general. Objective realities are defined by experts, like blood pressure, BMI, air pollution, purchasing power, mental problems, personality, genetic dispositions, and public governance. Many objective realities, like health, safety and mental problems, are also experienced subjectively. It is important that researchers mind the difference between objective and subjective realities in their explanation of happiness. They may obviously try everything they want, but it is usually not helpful to mix up subjective and objective realities as explanatory factors. Subjective realities, happiness included, always hang together as exponents of the same psychological dynamics. Objective realities, on the other hand, are defined by experts with different disciplines.  

In an epistemological way there is a very different distinction between subjective and objective observations. Subjective observations depend on the characteristics of the observers, while objective observations or measurements are independent of such characteristics. I am rather tall so I would describe many people as rather short. This is a subjective observation. If we use some instrument we can measure height and weight in an objective way, independent of the characteristics and preferences of the observers. We can also use standardized-questions to measure either objective or subjective realities objectively. Such questions are objective instruments in an epistemological way, but qualified as subjective indicators if they are used to measure subjective realities, and as objective indicators if they are used to measure objective realities.  

Second suggestion: try to collect and apply more information about psychological characteristics, as objective individual realities!

One remarkable outcome of happiness research is that it is relatively easy to explain differences in average happiness in specific groups, while it is difficult to explain differences in individual happiness. There is one trivial reason: average happiness for groups has more stability since many fluctuations in individual happiness cancel each other out and are not reflected in the average. Individual happiness has less stability.  An additional reason is a lack of information about individual psychological characteristics. It is relatively easy to collect information about subjective realities as experienced with survey questions, but it is difficult to collect information about psychological characteristics, as objective realities defined by experts. Important examples are personality, genetic dispositions, and mental problems. At this point we should make more progress.

Last suggestion: combine happiness as a subjective indicator with objective indicators to asses quality of life.

Happiness is usually fairly stable, comparable and decent, but there are exceptions and we have to be critical. Average happiness in a nation can be high by immoral behavior; e.g. by a disproportional waste of resources, pollution, and debatable trade- and fiscal relations with other nations. So we have to be critical. We must also be critical if important changes in objective realities are not reflected in more or less happiness. The deteriorations in our ecological conditions are very serious, but the impact on current happiness is low. This is acceptable, obviously, since being unhappy as such is not helpful in whatever way. It is problematic, however, if we ignore the developments because we are still happy. We must pay attention to such developments because they will reduce future ecological livability and happiness. It is important to combine the application of happiness as a subjective indicator with the application of objective indicators, related to ecological, economic, psychological and sociological issues.  Such combinations may also help us to assess he relative impact on happiness of adaptation and changes in actual conditions.

How long have you been a member of ISQOLS? Why did you choose to be a member of ISQOLS? How has your involvement in ISQOLS impacted your career/research/advancement in your knowledge of QoL studies?

The first time I participated in an ISQOLS-conference was in Girona in Spain in 2000. It was a pleasant and useful experience, so I also participated in Frankfurt, Grahamstown, San Diego, Florence, Innsbruck, and Granada. I met many researchers who could give me valuable advice, for example about options and priorities in research. Talking to other QOL-researchers is pleasant and inspirational, but also saves you a lot of time and trouble. It has helped me to contribute to the development of the World Database of Happiness and to write reviews, articles, a dissertation and a book. I hope we can meet again soon!

Feel free to include any other important comments or things you'd like to share with the ISQOLS community.

We can use happiness as a subjective indicator to assess the quality of life, but also as a normative point of reference in political deliberations and discussions. Many people are critical of neo-liberalism, but a lot of their criticism is not very specific. We can be more specific if we accept happiness as a point of reference. Just two typical examples:

a)     The gratification of fundamental needs gets the same priority in neo-liberal societies as the gratification of less fundamental needs, even though the frustration of fundamental needs has more impact on happiness over the life course. The position of children deserves special attention in this respect. The children of poor parents should get the same safety and security, and the same healthcare and education as the children of rich people.

b)    Positional competition used to have positive effects, because it stimulated people to work harder and to be creative. This neo-liberal mechanism has become obsolete by the tremendous rise in labour productivity. The negative effects of positional competition on happiness are no longer compensated by proportional benefits. It has become a zero-sum game with an upward pressure on production and consumption with negative effects on ecological sustainability. One typical example is that rich parents spend a lot of money to get more and better education for their children. Understandable, but with negative effects on happiness. The children of poor parents get frustrated and become aggressive because they do not get the same opportunities.


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