This paper by Daniel Neff sheds some fascinating light upon it by studying the relationship between subjective well-being and actual living standards in two Indian villages in Andra Pradesh.
He shows that although the correlation between the two is generally positive, it is well short of unity. Almost a fifth of the poorest one-fifth of people - and these, remember, are the poorest in the world - say they are satisfied with their lives, whilst a third of the best-off fifth say they are dissatisfied.
This suggests that subjective indicators - how people feel, what they say - are an imperfect measure of actual inequality.
A big confounding factor here is people’s tendency to compare their present situation to the past and future. If people are less badly off now than before, or have high expectations for their children, they will report that they are satisfied with their lives even if, by objective standards, these are awful. Mr Neff gives the example of a woman working as a building labourer who says she’s satisfied with her life because she’s escaped an abusive husband and hopes her children will do well, and of a man who’s happy because he’s recovered from serious illness and is optimistic about paying off his debt.
I suspect that this mechanism helps explain white male resentment. Some are unhappy about “feminazis”, the “gay rights lobby” or the “race relations industry” because they feel less privileged now than in the past - even though, objectively, they are still privileged.
And this brings me to a big problem which Amartya Sen has often stressed - that paying heed to people‘s subjective, expressed, well-being can be very unjust:
The utility calculus can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived: for example, the usual underdogs in stratified societies, perennially oppressed minorities in intolerant communities…routinely overworked sweatshop employees…The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible (Development as Freedom, p62-63)Unfortunately, our pseudo-democracy does just this. It gives too little weight to the quietly oppressed, and too much to the noisy but discontented privileged.