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What Gets Measured Gets Managed

written by Rosie Milner 25 August 2007

Rosie Milner is a MAPP student at the University of East London. A Cambridge University philosophy graduate, Rosie has worked as a policy advisor on a range of social and economic policies, both for the British Government and in the NGO sector. Full bio.

Rosie's articles are here.

Richard Layard

Richard Layard

Governments have tried to increase their citizens’ well-being since time immemorial. But when it comes to assessing how they’re doing, they have generally stuck to objective measures such as GDP, as famously criticized by Lord Layard. This changed earlier this summer, when the British Government became the first in the West to track its citizens’ subjective well-being.

The UK Government has published data on well-being in Britain, which will now be measured annually, along with economic, environmental and social indices. This commitment to monitor well-being fulfills a recommendation from a large number of prominent positive psychologists [i].

chartThe research confirms earlier findings [ii] that British people are fairly happy: average life satisfaction was 7.3 out of 10. But happiness was not equally distributed. Those in lower socio-economic groups were less satisfied with almost every aspect of their lives. As the chart of the left shows, they also experienced less general well-being and more depression and loneliness than other groups. The results give even greater urgency to the UK Government’s efforts to reduce inequality.

The landmark decision to track well-being follows political pressure from the leader of the main opposition party on the importance of well-being and public concern following a UNICEF report which placed the UK at the bottom of a league for child well-being.

The British Government is increasingly interested in evidence on the causes of well-being and successful positive interventions, and is supporting a UK community intervention based on the Penn Resiliency Program. Well-being findings are not yet integrated into policy-making in the UK, but the commitment to measure well-being is a very necessary and welcome first step towards this end.



Diener, E. (2006). Guidelines for national indicators of subjective well-being and ill-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 397-404.

Diener, E. & Suh, E.M. (2003). National differences in subjective well-being. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp. 435-450). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin.

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Bridget Grenville-Cleave 25 August 2007 - 5:34 pm

This is a v interesting post Rosie. According to the UNICEF report, the UK (and the US for that matter) has a particular issue to do with the proportion of children growing up in relative (as opposed to absolute) poverty. Given what we know about upward/downward comparison, I think creating equality between different social groups is only part of the answer…

I’m very pleased to see the Govt taking seriously the question of measuring citizens’ well-being. However, setting targets for it is another matter…. NHS waiting lists springs to mind!!

Angus 26 August 2007 - 10:23 am

Thank you for posting this excellent piece, concise and to the point. And thank you for the lonk to the DefRA data on England. I shall pursue next wek whetehr there is a simialr study in Scotland but since DeFRA’s writ does not extend I rather doubt it – so far!
Best wishes

Rosie Milner 27 August 2007 - 7:05 am

Thanks for your posts guys. Bridget, you may be interested in this article on income inequality and happiness – http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_3_economic_inequality.html.

I think fostering opportunity could be a good (positive!) intervention by policymakers, although I think that some of his arguments are flawed.


Dave Shearon 28 August 2007 - 6:29 pm

Great post, Rosie. I was going to raise some of the same point as Bridget and also the article that you cited in your response. The only thing I would add is to remember the work of Lyubomirsky, et al., that it seems to be more the case that happiness leads to success than vice versa.

Walt Winkelman 11 November 2007 - 3:13 pm



Good afternoon!

I was mesmerized by your title of this article “What Gets Measured Gets Managed”. I immediately knew that the next sentence was going to mention the father of ‘behavioral psychology’ B.F.Skinner. One of Skinner’s basic premises was “if you can measure it (objectively – via statistical analysis of numbers) you can control it, if you can control it you can change/modify it and if you change/modify the said behavior you can then teach it”.

Rosie, one of your quotable statements is “Governments have tried to increase their citizen’s well-being since time immemorial”. My question is “would you please provide me with at least one or hopefully two references (quantitative citations) for this statement and provide me a list of which governments that you are specifically alluding to? I will appreciate your effort for this will significantly help my current scientific research.

Next, you say “But when it comes to assessing how they’re doing, they have generally stuck to objective measures such as GDP”. Granted that GDP is an objective measure – because it is a part of quantitative research which mandates’ doing statistical analysis with number’s to reach its conclusion(s). Whereas, you and many current academic researchers (including Dr. Deiner and Dr. Seligman) wrongly use the following terms interchangeably (because of lexicon: each specific word must have it’s own definition): well-being, subjective well-being, joy, life satisfaction, the good life, life well lived, personal growth, meaning, hedonic measures of a good life, contentment, quality of life –this is an example of a tautology. That is, in this case “using one ‘subjective’ measure to define another ‘subjective’ measure”. Just please provide me with the pertinent research citations where you can find a valid piece(s) of valid, quantitative, scientific research with a R factor >.6, V factor >.6, with a P factor .7 which validates the positive correlation between GDP and subjective well-being. Again, if you can provide me with that/those citation(s) I would appreciate it.

Rosie, later you said “This changed earlier this summer, when the British Government became the first in the West to track its citizens’ subjective well-being”. Again, I would appreciate the citation that proves the quote. I say this only because I believe that the World Database of Happiness and Ruut Venhooven have been doing this for about 1/4 of a century with his organization (which I believe is in the Netherlands) and let’s not forget our friends in Australia at Australian Centre on Quality of Life
who have been, since 2000, researching subjective well-being and happiness interchangeably (again, from a scientific point-of-view this poses a real problem with their research. But, in terms of the pioneer who proceeded us for providing the shoulders that we can now stand on. With a specific “thanks” to: Nic Marks of nef (the UK group under DEFRA) that actually did the research on happiness under David Cameron’s suggestion to previous Prime Minister Tony Blair (then it was Prime Minister Tony Blair who formed nef and the Department of Happiness). Also we should make sure to thank these pioneers; Ruut Venhooven, Sir Richard Layard, Ed Deiner, Dr. Seligman, Dr. Kahneman, Will Wilkerson of the Cato Institute, to just to mention a few. I only wish that we could thank all of these pioneers who have blazed this trail toward scientifically defining and objectively measuring happiness.

Not to get into further detail, but Rosie I would genuinely appreciate your help with the above requested citations because it will definitely provide me the quantifiable research that will allow me to change some of my most recent claims that I make about happiness.

In the FYI category Rosie, My name is Walt Winkelman and I am a 57 year-old doctoral student (I should be done with the “defense of my dissertation” in August/September). Again, ‘PLEASE’ help me be better informed about the above referenced background citations.

“THANK YOU” in advance Rosie for your time and help!

Best Regards,
Walt Winkelman

jeffery barnhart 13 November 2007 - 1:04 am

I have deligently been tracking Walt Wnkelman’s posts. Please be advised not to have any business dealings with this character. For more info. please google “walt winkelman” He is not what he claims.
Take care,



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