Understanding Well-being Data

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

Summarising what measuring subjective well-being does

So, as we have discovered, subjective well-being is often characterised as being concerned with happiness alone [1]. Instead, subjective well-being is a more complex combination of various aspects of the lived experience; it involves several distinct ideas with disciplinary and theoretical histories. While these concepts can sometimes correlate when measured, the evidence for this remains inconclusive [2]. Research using secondary subjective well-being data, therefore, should clearly establish the conceptual differences between different components of subjective well-being, to be sure that what is aimed to be measured is what is actually being measured. Furthermore, this could be better communicated.

While subjective well-being has been thought to predict behaviour in meaningful ways [3], the subjective well-being measures we have encountered are thought valuable because they enable an empirical examination of the factors which cause improved or reduced well-being [4]. Some economists (such as Layard) believe that these qualities make these approaches an improvement on traditional micro-economics approaches which rely on notions of utility. Utility, as we discovered in Chap. 2, is the idea that satisfaction is experienced by consuming a good or service and that ‘rational choice’ drives consumers to remove dissatisfaction (or discomfort) and to maximise on this satisfaction.

In general, subjective well-being data allow for an assessment of the positive or negative contribution of one factor (such as public libraries) over another, which may seem unrelated (such as being made redundant), to well-being. This therefore allows an appraisal of different factors which can be both monetary and non-monetary [5]. However, we must also remember that it can be difficult to separate spurious from essential well-being effects, and doing so often relies on human judgement.

The qualities of these newer measures of subjective well-being have led to influential figures, such as Lord O’Donnell[6] arguing for ‘a well-being approach’ to inform decisions that manage COVID-19 [7]. O’Donnell and other advocates for this type of well-being approach argue that well-being measures should inform ‘trade-offs’ and ‘the true costs of lockdowns’, for example, by declines in mental health and access to healthcare [7]. It could be a means of deciding the balance between how one policy move related to protecting the economy (which includes people’s jobs) to another, such as healthcare (which includes its own financial considerations and multiple mortality rates). It is also this approach that helps unpick the assumed correlation between having money and attaining happiness that we opened this chapter with.

The different definitions of subjective well-being further complicate issues for those wanting to use well-being data in their research or to understand the research of others. The confusing naming conventions, overlapping definitions and disagreements as to what counts as subjective well-being, objective well-being, personal well-being or societal well-being also don’t help those wanting to understand the ways in which well-being measurement more broadly furthers knowledge of the human experience. There is also work to be done on how the different ideas of subjective well-being overlap with longstanding cross-disciplinary beliefs and assertions regarding the value of different domains of life to well-being that we will encounter later in the book. In short, there is a transparency gap in the discussions of rigour, classifications and measures in the ‘science’ and the legibility of what that means to everyday people, despite the efforts made to do so.


  1. OECD 2013, 10[]
  2. Clark and Senik 2011 in Fleche et al. 2012, 9[]
  3. Diener and Tov 2012[]
  4. Fleche et al. 2012, 10[]
  5. Fleche et al. 2012[]
  6. Gus O’Donnell served as the Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011, the highest official in the British Civil Service.[]
  7. O’Donnell 2020[][]