Why we should all care about the wellbeing debate

On the surface, new data published last month by the Office for National Statistics perhaps isn’t as exciting a development as the readers of 3rdimagazine are used to. There is no new government initiative associated with the data and most of the links on the twittersphere lead you to some pretty uninspiring excel worksheets. But the UK’s first national wellbeing statistics mark a coming of age for alternative economics that affects us all.

For many years organisations such as the Carnegie UK Trust have been arguing that what governments choose to measure is what matters to them, and subsequently what gets delivered. If the wrong things are measured, due to lack of good data or sometimes force of habit, we orientate our services towards these measures instead of what really matters to society.

The prime example of this is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which countries use as the central measure of prosperity despite well-known flaws in the data. Against the current backdrop of a prolonged recession, economic measures like GDP seem to trump all others. But as Robert Kennedy said of GDP, while it is useful, it measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile”.

The study and measurement of wellbeing has developed significantly over the past few decades. What were once instinctive elements of wellbeing (access to the outdoors, strong and supportive communities, the opportunity to learn and develop) are now known to have a strong correlation with wellbeing. We no longer have to make a leap of faith between social goods and individual wellbeing. What’s more, ‘domains’ of wellbeing (income, employment, housing, work-life balance, education, social connections, civil engagement, environment, health and personal security) are remarkably similar between different cultures and communities.

While the science of wellbeing was developing, it was a niche area of interest for a small number of economists and social scientists. In 2008 President Sarkozy raised the profile of the wellbeing debate and gave it legitimacy by establishing a Commission on Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress chaired by Joseph Stiglitz.

As a direct result, in 2010 David Cameron asked the ONS to come up with a way of measuring wellbeing, including people’s own assessment of their wellbeing and satisfaction with their lives. The Office of National Statistics, uncharacteristically, took the approach to taking to the streets to find out what wellbeing meant to the people of the UK before carrying out their first wellbeing survey. In total, the ONS held 175 events and the debate generated 34,000 responses, some of which were from organisations and groups representing thousands more.

These were used by statisticians to develop a range of questions about wellbeing which were included in the Integrated Household Survey. Over the course of the year this meant that 165,000 adults aged 16 and over were asked about their wellbeing and using such a large sample size has allowed detailed investigation of sub-groups of the population such as gender, age, ethnic group, relationship status, health, disability, employment status and occupation. As well as within countries of the UK, within English regions and at the unitary authority/county level.

The survey findings tell us a huge amount about who we are and what our current challenges are. To highlight a few issues:

  • Women were more likely to report higher levels of subjective well-being but also more likely than men to give higher ratings for the ‘anxious yesterday’ question (indicating higher anxiety).
  • 45 per cent of unemployed people rated their ‘life satisfaction’ as below 7 out of 10. This is over twice as much than for employed people, 20 per cent of whom described their life satisfaction as below 7 out of 10. This illustrates additional effects of unemployment on people, over and above material dimensions that can be measured objectively.
  • Almost two-fifths (38.5 per cent) of people who described themselves as having a ‘work-limiting disability’, ‘DDA disability’ or both, gave a rating of less than 7 out of 10 for the ‘life satisfaction’ question (indicating lower life satisfaction). This is almost twice the proportion of non-disabled people (19.4 per cent).

More data will be available in November when the ONS published a ‘state of the nation’ report. If the UK data follows international trends, it will likely show that mental health has a profound effect on the level of individual wellbeing suggesting that greater priority should be given to services that improve mental health. The data on unemployment is also instructive, far from a temporary ‘blip’, international evidence shows that unemployment has a long-lasting impact on individual wellbeing. As we build up more data over time this has the potential to become a more and more useful way of assessing our overall progress as a society.

The next stage of the debate has to be about how we translate these measures into policy making. To understand better how others approach wellbeing measurement, the Carnegie UK Trust and IPPR North have been carrying out a series of study visits to learn from international experience, including the State of Virginia in the US and Canada.

Virginia, like the UK, continues to see the data as a tool developed and used by government agencies. The national and local initiatives on measuring wellbeing in Canada, on the other hand, had citizen engagement at their heart. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing, one of the most internationally respected programmes on measuring wellbeing, was initiated by a charitable foundation. At local level, Vital Signs programmes run by local Community Foundations produce reports on wellbeing in local areas with a view to directing their own activities and those of local government. Crucially, like the ONS, both these programmes have invested in citizen consultation to explore what wellbeing means to them but they go further by arguing that compiling the data is not the end of the programme but just the beginning of a process of dialogue and community action.

Government, political parties, business, trades unions and civil society organisations need to use the statistics offered by ONS as the basis for a national conversation about what really matters in life. It is only with this sort of cross party and cross sectoral support that wellbeing will embed as a means of monitoring our progress.


Jennifer Wallace leads the policy team at Carnegie UK Trust which covers a wide range of policy and research areas under the three themes of Enterprise and Society, People and Place and Knowledge and Culture. The Trust seeks to improve the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland through influencing public policy and demonstrating innovative practice.

1 Comment on Why we should all care about the wellbeing debate

  1. A fascinating article – finally the UK Govt seems to be getting closer to some sort of understanding of “wellbeing”, following Tony Blair’s interest in Richard Layard’s examination of “happiness” and why it doesn’t necessarily increase along with rising GDP. Prior to that, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare built on Bobby Kennedy’s moving speech by showing that if you differentiate between the good things and bad things which GDP measures, we haven’t really been getting any “better off” since the 1950s. There’s been a “to be determined” indicator for wellbeing in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy at least since 2005, which this work should help to define, but whether it marks a genuine shift towards a more sustainable economic model such as Tim Jackson proposed in “Prosperity Without Growth” remains to be seen. Certainly the prospect of a return to year-on-year economic growth of around 3% seems very remote as well as environmentally unsustainable. Until the Treasury begins to understand and value “wellbeing”, we will continue to measure progress by our ability to exploit the planet’s limited resources, with the spoils being distributed very unequally, and with little regard for the impact on future generations.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.