Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 4 Discovering ‘the new science of happiness’ and subjective well-being

How these measures can be applied

There are important distinctions when considering how aspects of happiness economics can apply value to what we do. Recalling the photo album versus TV example from Chap. 2, it can be difficult to ascribe value to others’ activities. Ateca-Amestoy has tried to explain the value of leisure as a psychological need for different kinds of experiences, and which impact on how we evaluate our quality of life.

[L]eisure is a human need to be fulfilled by household production and consumption of what we may call ‘leisure experiences’. Those experiences are commodities that fall directly within the individual’s determination and assessment of his/her quality of life. This means that leisure is one of the arguments of the individual’s utility function, one of the instances from which he/she will achieve well-being.

(Ateca-Amestoy 2011, 53)

The importance of understanding the different kinds of well-being benefits offered by different types of leisure has been an aim of high-profile research over the isolated periods of COVID-19 lockdowns (https://www.covidsocialstudy.org/). That some activities offer hedonic utility, such as streaming and television watching, and some offer eudaimonic, such as reading (and some both, of course), is being studied [1]. However, what people do is often polarised as ‘watching television excessively’ [2], with claims that ‘these changes in behaviours and mental health are reflected in people’s assessments of the differences in their lives between this lockdown and that of spring 2020’ [3]. This is slightly misleading: from the evidence presented, we do not know that it is people’s behaviour that has changed people’s assessments of their lives, when policy-making and poor weather in a pandemic are arguably having a greater affect than watching the telly. As you may recall, this is one limit of applying the ‘Greatest Happiness’ principle and can also be the consequence of confirmation bias. For example, the Sarkozy Commission contrasted ‘cultural events’ with ‘poor leisure’[4] [5] and Layard’s analysis of television’s negative effects was inevitably biased by an idea of good leisure.[6] However, as we have discovered, assumptions as to what qualifies as good leisure and poor leisure are problematic ethically, and will not present universal results.

That pleasure and reward do not map onto each other neatly aligns with Aristotelian thinking. The think tank, New Economics Foundation (NEF), has been highly influential in UK well-being research since the mid-2000s. Its definition of well-being is ‘developing as a person, being fulfilled, and making a contribution to the community’ [7]. The report, ‘A Well-Being Manifesto for a Flourishing Society’ [8], called for well-being to be foregrounded and for governments to work towards a ‘flourishing society’ with ‘happy, healthy, capable and engaged’ citizens [7]. In 2008, NEF introduced a set of guidelines called the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, based ‘around the themes of social relationships, physical activity, awareness, learning, and giving’ [9], summarised as connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give.

The ‘Five Ways’ have proven successful, and have been adopted in parts of the National Health Service and by organisations such as Mind, the mental health charity,[10] as well as many other social policy areas. Individual institutions have chosen to adapt it when offering well-being advice to staff and other members of the institution. The University of Manchester, for example [11], has adapted it into its ‘six ways to well-being’ which is used to frame its advice to students and staff. The cultural sector has embraced the guidelines, both in arts practices aimed at improving well-being [12] and as a means of evaluation of eudaimonic and broader well-being aspects of cultural engagement [13]. According to a review of the evidence from international arts and health literature, ‘[t]he benefits from arts programmes resonate strongly with the evidence-based “five ways to wellbeing” model of mental health: connect, take notice, keep learning, be active, give’ [14].

The success of the ‘Five Ways’ is down to legibility of its framework to many policy sectors, people in the general population and policy-makers. Let us briefly return to the takeaway conclusions from how the new sciences of happiness generate knowledge that is both policy-ready and accessible (popular, even ‘pop’) rests on clear and encouraging messaging (positive), innovation (new), authority (science) and morality (philosophy). The Five Ways to well-being meet all of these criteria, perhaps more than the idea of subjective well-being in and of itself. We will move towards closing, by looking at the ONS4 as a case study to understand the importance of legibility, transparency and understanding, when deciding on how to collect subjective well-being data.


  1. Bu et al. 2020; Mak et al. 2020; Nuffield 2021[]
  2. Bu et al. 2020, 7[]
  3. Nuffield 2021[]
  4. Stiglitz et al. (2009, 176) specify this as a measure, ‘such as the proportion of individuals, families or children that cannot afford a week of holidays away from home at least once a year’. ‘Among EU countries, close to 10% of households in the Netherlands and in most Nordic countries report that they could not afford a week away from home, as compared to levels above 50% in some countries in Southern and Eastern Europe’.[]
  5. Stiglitz et al. 2009, 49[]
  6. For more on good and bad leisure, see Chap. 6.[]
  7. Shah and Marks 2004, 2[][]
  8. Shah and Marks 2004[]
  9. Aked et al. 2008, 17[]
  10. Mind’s use of the Five Ways can be found online (Mind n.d.).[]
  11. The University of Manchester n.d.[]
  12. Dodd and Jones 2014[]
  13. Daykin and Joss 2016[]
  14. Bidwell 2014, 3[]