Understanding Well-being Data

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

Definitions of subjective well-being

Subjective well-being encompasses different aspects (cognitive evaluations of one’s life, happiness, satisfaction, positive emotions such as joy and pride, and negative emotions such as pain and worry): each of them should be measured separately to derive a more comprehensive appreciation of people’s lives.

(Stiglitz et al. 2009, 16)

Subjective well-being measures aim to capture a number of aspects of how well-being is experienced. This moves the focus from the idea that what matters in a good life is the presence of a specific set of life circumstances or material conditions. Nevertheless, using objective indicators with subjective well-being ones enables estimates of the impact that material conditions (measured with objective indicators) have on how people feel about their life (subjective well-being measures).

Measuring subjective well-being therefore lends itself to analyses of which circumstances and conditions are important for well-being [1]. Looking at subjective well-being data also, then, helps to understand the gap between material living conditions and people’s own evaluation of their circumstances [2]. These sorts of relationships are normally tested with a specific research question, for example: ‘how does wealth improve subjective well-being?’ You would pick what variable or data you would like to use to measure wealth: personal income, household income, property value, or identify where someone sits on a scale of poverty and wealth using a marker, such as their postcode. You would then pick how you wanted to measure subjective well-being. Using the ONS4 example, you might want to test the difference between how satisfied someone is with their life nowadays, or overall (life satisfaction) with how happy they say they were yesterday and the relationship between these two and wealth. One such example of this is a paper called ‘High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being’ [3].

The OECD which ‘exist[s] to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world’ (oecd.org) have also reported guidelines on measuring subjective well-being. The OECD propose a relatively broad definition:

Good mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences.

(OECD 2013, 16)

As this book is not aiming to provide a definition or statement of determinants of well-being, but offer the tools to understand how others use and understand well-being data, we are going to look at an overview of subjective well-being.

The diagram (Fig. 4.1) illustrates the key components of subjective well-being, contextualising them in the theories we have encountered before. You may remember from Chap. 2 that the eudaimonic is based on Aristotelian (c. 330 BC) teachings, and can most simply be understood as purpose or flourishing. The hedonic begins with Epicurious ([341–270 BC] 1994), but is more familiar with the well-being agenda as a utilitarian principle [4]. It is most simply understood as pleasure, but more accurately means positive feeling.

Fig. 4.1. Accounts and examples of subjective well-being measures. (Adapted from Oman 2017a)

You will see how the divide of pleasure versus purpose is then captured as measurable aspects of life, and how they relate to each other, whether that is in someone’s experience and feeling, their satisfaction or a sense that their life is worthwhile in various ways.[5] Inside each bubble on the right-hand side is the name of the type of subjective well-being measure (i.e. Life Satisfaction), underneath that is an example of the question or method used, and underneath that, a survey in which these questions have been used (the anomaly being ESM, which is not really used in national-level surveys, as I will explain, but is suitable in mobile apps data collection). I found it took me a long time to acclimatise to the idea that all of these measures and approaches are called subjective well-being; that they are related, yet so varied in approach, and use similar language. The next section walks you through this diagram, with examples from each ‘bubble’, to hopefully give you a better idea of how they work together.

Table 4.1 Subjective well-being measures and their uses in policy

Monitoring progressInforming policy designPolicy appraisal
Evaluation measuresLife satisfactionLife satisfaction
Domain satisfaction, for example: Relationships; health; work; finances; area; time; children
Life satisfaction Domain satisfactions Detailed ‘sub’- domains satisfaction with services
Experience measuresHappiness yesterday Worried yesterdaySubjective well-being measuresHappiness and worry Affect associated with particular activities
‘Intrusive thoughts’ relevant to context
Eudaimonic measuresWorthwhile things in lifeWorthwhile things in life ‘Reward’ from activitiesWorthwhile things in life
‘Reward’ from activities

Adapted from Dolan et al. (2011a)


  1. Kahneman and Krueger 2006[]
  2. Helliwell 2003[]
  3. Kahneman and Deaton 2010[]
  4. Bentham 1996 [1789][]
  5. I began mapping how the accounts and measures of subjective well-being fitted together in my PhD, initially drawing from Dolan et al. (2011a, b), primarily because it informed the ONS measures. Figure 4.1 and the subsequent section use this briefing paper as a starting point, with many elaborations I found useful along the way.[]