Government to Measure Wellbeing

• Household surveys will assess people’s wellbeing from April 2011
• Results will inform new measure of the country’s progress

Jil Matheson, chief statistician at the Office of National Statistics (ONS), will create new questions to include in existing household surveys from April 2011. These will gauge how people rate their own subjective wellbeing and measure other indicators, such as whether they are achieving their life goals.

ONS are leading a national public consultation on the proposals. “We want to develop measures based on what people tell us matters most,” Matheson said. The debate also aims to develop a suitable way to present the statistics, so that people can relate to them.

Referred to as The National Wellbeing Project, ONS say the new measures will provide a fuller picture of quality of life and ‘how society is doing’ than is given by economic indicators alone – such as gross domestic product (GDP). Wellbeing will be assessed across the country for people in different places, circumstances and social groups, considering potential factors such as: people’s health, levels of education, job satisfaction, supportive relationships, cultural activities, income levels and the environment.

Announcing the plans, David Cameron said that all life cannot be analysed on a balance sheet. “Taken on its own, GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress,” he said, pointing out that GDP has risen steadily in Western societies for decades while levels of contentment have remained static or fallen.

The prime minister wants to initiate a debate – in government, the media, business and society – about “what really matters” and believes that government has the power to increase wellbeing. “The measures have a real practical purpose,” he said. “Finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is the serious business of government.” In time the programme will lead to policy that is “more focussed, not just on the bottom line,” he added, “but on all those things that make life worthwhile.”

David Cameron has wanted to pursue the measures for some time. Shortly after becoming leader of the Conservative party, and speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference, he said that improving society’s sense of wellbeing is the most central political challenge of our times. “Wealth is about so much more than pounds,” he stated. “It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and above all the strength of our relationships.”

At a time of government spending cuts there has been some scepticism towards the plans, but the coalition’s intentions have been praised by a number of NGOs. The New Economics Foundation (NEF), an independent think-tank, welcomed the announcement and said that the prime minister must ensure he acts on the data.

“Economic growth in the rich world is not improving life satisfaction,” stated Charles Seaford, head of the Centre for Wellbeing at NEF. “Instead, it is increasing inequality and pushing our planetary life-support systems to breaking point. That is why we welcome Mr Cameron’s plans and hope that a national measure of wellbeing might eventually come to be used as the main barometer of a successful policy.” He added that the government must “have the courage to scrap or reform policies that stop us from flourishing and living long, happy lives.”

Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics, commented: “It is a positive and forward-looking move by the government, which will provide us with a much better idea of the health of British society.”

A UK poll carried out on behalf of the BBC in 2006, found that 81% of people believe the government should prioritise ‘the greatest happiness’ over ‘the greatest wealth’. Countries that have incorporated wellbeing in development guidelines include: the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, which has the concept of Gross National Happiness at the core of its governance; Bolivia, which has the indigenous notion of Buen Vivir (living well) in its constitution; and Ecuador, which has a National Plan for Good Living. In 2009, French president Nicholas Sarkozy stated his intention to measure France’s happiness, following recommendations from Nobel economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Canada meanwhile, is gathering information on subjective wellbeing, although this is not yet being used as official data.

The European Union is pursuing the concept. In 2009 a report by the European Commission stated: “GDP does not measure environmental sustainability or social inclusion, and these limitations need to be taken into account when using it in policy analysis and debates.” The report recommended looking at other issues on which wellbeing critically depends, such as income, public services, health, leisure, wealth, mobility and a clean environment.

Comment: Why Measuring Happiness Matters by Nic Marks