Home All Measuring the Nation’s Well-Being – A Skeptical Update

Measuring the Nation’s Well-Being – A Skeptical Update

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 August 2011

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

A few months ago I wrote about the British government’s intention to measure national well- being (Vanessa King discussed the same topic here a few months later). This project came about because of the obvious failing of GDP (gross domestic product) to capture all the nuances of social and economic progress (and lack of it) in the country. I promised to update you on this project’s progress, and at the end of July 2011, a series of reports was issued by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which is running the project, including the “National Statistician’s reflections on the national debate on measuring national well-being” (see below).

Robert F Kennedy

Robert F Kennedy

Why Measure Well-Being?

Those of you familiar with Robert Kennedy’s 1968 University of Kansas address* will know that the idea of using something other than plain old economics to measure a country’s growth and well-being is decades old, but this hadn’t filtered through to British politicians until now. It also seems to tap into the work of Richard Easterlin (famous for the “Easterlin Paradox”) –  the basic idea being that Western societies are getting richer (on average ) but not happier (although you should note that this is the simplified explanation of the Easterlin Paradox – if you want to read a more detailed account, see Easterlin’s recent article called The Happiness Paradox Revisited.)

If you’re unsure about the value of measuring national well-being and progress using non-economic measures, it’s worth reflecting on the argument that they could have explained (and perhaps even predicted) the anti-social and criminal behavior we experienced in the recent English riots, and that if we’d had a way of measuring national well-being we might have developed policies which would have prevented them. On the other hand, if you believe that the riots were simply the work a bunch of rampaging young thugs hell-bent on causing trouble, damaging property, and stealing as much they could get away with, you’re probably not that convinced by psychological explanations for behavior anyway.

What’s in the Measure?

Rather than consult well-being experts (of which there are quite a few, but only four amongst the 40-odd members of the ONS’s Advisory Forum) and review the growing body of positive psychology literature on life satisfaction, flourishing, happiness and all the other synonyms for well-being, the ONS embarked on a six month national consultation exercise because, in the National Statistician Jil Mathieson’s own words, the only way to develop these measures is to ask people what matters most to them. She’s entitled to her opinions of course, but as I said back in February, to me it seems like a spectacular waste of time, effort, and money. The ‘results’ seem to bear this out.

In reality, people were asked to select the things that matter to them from a predefined list of items (see tables below), and then to choose those which should be reflected in a measure of national well-being. Half-way through the process a revised consultation document was issued. The items added or changed are marked like this.

Original Consultation Document

What things in life matter to you?
Please choose all that apply.

Revised Consultation Document

What things in life matter to you?
Please choose all that apply.

  • Health
  • Health
  • Having good connections with friends and relatives
  • Having good connections with friends and relatives
  • Having a good relationship with a spouse or partner
  • Job satisfaction and economic security
  • Job satisfaction
  • Economic security
  • Present and future conditions of the environment
  • Present and future conditions of the environment
  • Education and training
  • Education and training
  • Personal and cultural activities, including caring and volunteering
  • Personal and cultural activities, including volunteering
  • Unpaid caring, such as for children or other family members
  • Income and wealth
  • Income and wealth
  • Ability to have a say on local and national issues
  • Ability to have a say on local and national issues
  • Crime
  • Crime
  • Spirituality or religion
  • Other
  • Other


Commonly used words in the national well-being debate

Does This Make Sense?

According to the preliminary report, the National Statistician’s reflections on the national debate on measuring national well-being, “The debate has highlighted that the things that matter the most are our health, relationships, work, and the environment. These are also themes that the majority of respondents agree should be reflected in a measure of national well-being, with the addition of education and training” (quoted from page 9).

In short, the so-called national debate has been a waste of time, effort, and money – it hasn’t told us anything about well-being that we didn’t already know. What’s more it seems to miss out some important contributors such as trust and social cohesion.

Although the consultation wasn’t a statistical exercise and that results aren’t necessarily representative from a statistical perspective,  they’re still being used as a basis for deciding national well-being measures. This is illogical. If the results aren’t representative then it wasn’t a national consultation, and they shouldn’t be used as if they were. Otherwise there is a danger that the wrong measures (and ultimately policies) could be developed.

Themes from Young People

Take, for example, the themes which emerged from discussions with young people (ages not specified):

“Some of the themes that emerged from the main debate came up in our discussions with teenagers, such as relationships with friends and money. However, the following themes, not as common in our other discussions, emerged strongly:

  • Technology – mobile phones, ipods, social networking sites
  • Entertainment – reality tv, celebrity gossip
  • Image – the right clothes, shoes, make-up and hairstyle
  • Food and drink”

If this is what matters most to our young people and we support this in our well-being measurement and policy-making, then clearly we’ll get the society we deserve.

   The kids of today

Do People Act Rationally?

As has been pointed out in another recent ONS report by Alison Spence, Matthew Powell, and Abbie Self, the “debates about well-being have been somewhat unclear as the question of ‘what’ well-being is has often been conflated with the question of ‘how’ well-being can be measured.” At the risk of stating the obvious, there are some underlying assumptions running throughout the ONS work that i) people act rationally and ii) giving people more of what they want will improve their well-being.

In short, the consultation hasn’t moved us any closer to an accurate measure of national well-being than we were before it started. Bear in mind too that the ONS wants to capture children and young people’s well-being, subjective well-being, economic well-being, environmental well-being (in the form of natural capital) and sustainability measures. We’re in danger of ending up with a complete mishmash of ‘well-being measures’ designed by committees that don’t actually do the job they were intended to do, which is to help develop and assess policy to improve well-being. Either that or the ONS will revert to expert opinion and ignore what the consultees said. Which they could have done last November and saved £2m.

According to the ONS a proposed list of domains and dimensions for the measurement of well-being, and the well-being measures themselves, will be published later this year.




Easterlin, R. A., McVey, L., Switek, M., Sawangfa, O., & Zweig, J. (2010). The happiness–income paradox revisited. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(52), 22463-22468.

Mathieson, J., (2011). National Statistician’s reflections on the national debate on measuring national well-being. Office for National Statistics, UK.

Spence, A., Powell, M. & Self, A. (2011). Supplementary paper: Developing a framework for understanding and measuring national well-being. Office for National Statistics, UK.


Robert F. Kennedy by Renegade98
The kids of today by Wooly Matt

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Lisa Sansom 29 August 2011 - 6:31 pm

What occurs to me about this methodology is that we’re really bad at knowing what we really want. We’re decent at the short-term stuff (but not perfect) and quite dismal at the long-term. Psychological studies bear this out. So asking people what they want and what they think is important is sort of self-defeating. Perhaps the better option would be to ask only those who are 70 yrs and older (as sort of an arbitrary cut-off) and draw on their wisdom. Or just look at the psych literature and go from there. I mean, there is something to be said for inclusivity and process- but I worry that this was the wrong one.

Kathryn Britton 29 August 2011 - 9:44 pm

Maybe they needed to ask Dan Gilbert to be on the committee?


Shane Smith 30 August 2011 - 12:11 am

As always I have really loved reading the PPND. As always though I am NOT shocked that Governments Bureaucrats have wasted money and looked for answers that are already known.
I work within the Disability Industry which I believe and others do also know that Positive Psychology can benefit people through the appropriate application of what is takes a person with or without a Disability to flourish.

But many people within the industry are still in the dark about what it is…

It is interesting to read to read in your Article about the idea that people act Rationally. Hmmm People do not act rationally they are repeatedly and increasingly being driven by the manipulation of advertising.

I would encourage a wide number of people to revisit a BBC Documentary called a Century of Self.

wayne 30 August 2011 - 4:52 am

Bridget – there are a couple of issues

1. Psychologists can’t agree on a definition of wellbeing so how could government be expected to
2. Psychologists understanding fo wellbeing starts from a fairly narrow base – think either psychology students and middle aged women.

Bridget 30 August 2011 - 9:02 am

Hi Lisa

Thanks for your comments –you make some very valid points. It’s tricky to find a balance between being inclusive (or engaging people) on the one hand and using expert opinion or research on the other. Despite the PC approach that people always know what’s good for them, it is a fact that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, so the research has to be included. And even though we think we behave logically, we don’t. I love the idea of asking only those who are 70+, that’s very original!


Bridget 30 August 2011 - 5:18 pm

Hi Kathryn

yes – I think there’s a huge list of people they could have included.

It seems that their Advisory Forum which was initially 40+ strong is now a lot slimmer, and they have a Technical Advisory Group instead which includes Felicia Huppert, Richard Layard, Martin Seligman and researchers from Gallup and the New Economics Foundation. So that’s all right then. We’re in safe hands.


Bridget 30 August 2011 - 5:20 pm

Hi again Kathryn

I meant to add, thanks again for your editing!


Bridget 30 August 2011 - 5:35 pm

Hi Shane

Thanks for your comments.

Before I did the MAPP and became more familiar with scientific papers I used to think that bodies like the ONS just reported the numbers, but I subsequently discovered that there is a lot of truth in “lies, damned lies and statistics” as we discussed here:


I hadn’t come across the Century of the Self before, sounds fascinating – doesn’t look like it’s available any longer though:



Bridget 30 August 2011 - 5:39 pm

Hi Wayne

Fair point on both counts! It’ll be interesting to see what measures they finally decide on.

I think it’s fairly safe to say though that whatever they choose, some of us won’t be happy!


Shane Smith 30 August 2011 - 10:28 pm

Hi Bridget
If you click on my name in my post to me it shows up Purple it will take you to the BBC documentary.

Or you could simply follow this link….


Luis Miguel Neto 31 August 2011 - 5:46 am

Thank you Bridget for a remarkable stance on the issue of measuring the National Well Being of nations. You even made me happy since I thought the waste of money and resources by bureaucrats was something peculiar of Portugal & the south of europe. Again, Britain (and now the ONS) made me feel not alone! The issue gets even more interesting when comparing it with an “analytical paper”, with the title “Life satisfaction: the state of the knowledge and implications for government” published by Nick Donovan, David Helpern and Richard Sargeant in December 2002.How different things are when the relevant scientific literature is taken into consideration!I’m also very grateful for your implicit ackowledgment of qualitative methods as a useful and significant resource within Positive Psychology.

Bob P 31 August 2011 - 8:31 am

My understanding of positive psychology is measured by the degree that we bring positive emotions (rather than negative or destructive emotions) to the situations we encounter. Some of us respond positively to terrible situations while others of us respond with anger and hate to bennign situations. So measuring well being of a society is problematical. Do we measure the sum total of psychological responses in a society (pretty difficult) or do we measure how terrible or benign our psychological environment is hoping for some kind of a positive correlation?


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