Measuring national well-being

29 September 2011


How satisfied are you with your life? Is that even quantifiable? This was the question posed to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) when David Cameron announced that there was more to success than GDP and that he wished to measure the nation's well-being. How to go about this task and what to do with the results formed the basis of a CSaP meeting on “Measuring national well-being”, whigh brought together leading thinkers from academia and government. The workshop considered whether there were suitable methods for recording such a complex issue and how these data would become incorporated into policy decisions.

Professor Felicia Huppert, Founding Director of The Well-being Institute began by outlining what is meant by well-being. While institutions are well practiced in measuring objective facts, such as employment, health and education, they do less well at quantifying the experience of life. It is this experience that forms the basis of well-being. Despite material wealth increasing dramatically over the last 50 years, the reported satisfaction in life has barely improved. We must therefore look beyond material wealth and instead look at subjective well-being; simply asking “are you happy?” is not enough. Emotions are short lived and we easily swing from happiness to sadness without a significant change in our well-being. We must therefore focus not on how we feel, but how we function.

The academic community is not yet in agreement as to how best do this – though a consensus is developing. Key components of happiness extend beyond our possessions and instead include factors such as a sense of purpose, engagement with society and, most important of all, quality relationships with those around us. It is these factors which lead to optimism, self esteem and vitality.

Therefore it is these factors that the ONS is attempting to quantify. Paul Allin, Director of Social and Economic Micro-Analysis at the ONS, described how the key aim was to create a trusted set of national statistics that would go beyond the economic description of the country’s wealth. In much the same way GDP is used as a measure of economic wealth, a measure is needed to describe our emotional wealth. This task is not straight forward. There is no international agreement on how to measure well-being and so a set of key questions was devised that would be sufficiently probing to analyse the state of the nation, while simple enough that a large sample could be achieved. A second challenge exists in how to analyse these data. It is widely acknowledged that national well-being is more than just the sum of many individuals well-being – equality, fairness and sustainability are just a few of the compounding factors. Additionally, the well-being of the young and old must be considered not only as individuals but how their treatment makes society view itself.

Key to building a national picture of well-being is engaging with the public over its need. If the process is to be seen as more than just a bureaucratic exercise then real value must be gained from its findings. Trevor Huddleston, Director of Strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions explained that the starting point for this process must be to build a desire within the policy process to take well-being into account. This requires measures that can be trusted, a well understood link between policy and well-being and a better understanding of how well-being impacts the country more broadly. This prompts the difficult question of whether it is possible to attribute a financial value on well-being that can be factored into policy decisions in the same was as economic arguments. Moreover, can well-being be controlled in same way the economy?

Charles Seaford, Head of the Centre for Well-being at the think-tank nef, believes it can be. National well-being is subject to a number of drivers which can be affected by the policies passed down from government. What is required is an appreciation of the importance of such levers and whether different social and geographic groups respond to these drivers in the same way. Education, job security and quality of relationships affect all our lives, and yet even in the most deprived areas some individuals manage to find their way out. What is different about these individual's responses to the drivers as compared to others around them? Additionally there is a strong asymmetry to well being – a loss of income has a much greater negative effect than the equivalent increase in income has a positive effect. In fact income as a driver has much less of an impact than wealth in terms of building self-satisfaction. Without an understanding of the nuances involved, the government’s ability to directly improve well-being is limited.

Indirect improvement, however, could be easier, suggested Dr David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office. The factors preventing an individual from having the desire to improve their own well-being are generally much easier to overcome than attempting large scale social or economic change. A more active lifestyle, improving relationships and engaging in activities which involve giving back to society have all been shown to dramatically improve well-being. A lack of education regarding how to improve one’s own well-being is easily rectified and could have a profound effect on the public mood. A lack of motivation, a perceived lack of entitlement to participate, low self confidence and a general low level of awareness regarding available activities are listed amongst the top reasons for individuals not acting proactively to improve their well-being – it is perhaps these factors and not the more complex drivers outlined above that governments should attempt to improve first.

While it is clear that improving the national well-being is a valid and important task, until a clear and agreed method of its measurement is available then its role within policy will remain ill-defined. As the flow of information becomes ever faster, near real time analysis of public feeling will be required in order to keep pace with the increasingly fluid nature of policy. People’s engagement with policy and the factors influencing it is ever increasing and so it is more vital than ever to increase their understanding of the value to such factors as well-being. Having convinced both policy makers and the public of the value of well-being, then it can take its place alongside scientific and economic considerations in how we decide to run our country.

This report was prepared by David Bosworth.

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  • 29 September 2011

    Measuring national well-being

    In July 2011 the Office of National Statistics published a report with the key findings from a national debate to measure the nation's well being. This seminar will provide a forum for discussion and an outline of next steps.