Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data
2 Knowing well-being: a history of data
What is well-being? Well-being has become synonymous with the multi-billion-dollar wellness industry, whilst also being rooted in ancient philosophy and religious practices. It has no universal definition across time, place or scientific discipline, yet the very term ‘statistics’ was invented to measure human happiness.
This chapter contextualises the history of well-being data and development as one which is tied to political and technological change, firstly, in the desire to monitor human welfare, and secondly, for policy. Public management strategies embraced economic approaches to auditing, as a means to define value and efficiency in social policy choices. The chapter considers how well-being data became co-opted into an ostensibly rational process of decision-making and evaluation, becoming a tool of policy—for good and bad.
2.1What is well-being?
Centuries of philosophical inquiry have failed to result in agreement about what the ‘good life’ is’ (Veenhoven 1984, 18) How do we know what well-being is? The term ‘well-being’ is familiar and widespread and yet there is ambiguity around its definition. There are even disagreements in whether it is spelt ‘well-being’ or wellbeing. ‘Health and well-being’ or ‘mental health and […]continue reading →
2.1.1Traditions of well-being thought
There are two overarching ideas of well-being which emerge from two main traditions. These are found in the way well-being data are most often used to inform policy-making or evaluate decisions made in organisations. These two traditions have been described as ‘Benthamite-subjective-hedonic-individualistic’ or ‘Aristotelian-objective-eudaimonic-rational’ . This way of describing these two traditions is a bit of a mouthful and can […]continue reading →
2.1.2Common definitions used with well-being data
There is no single definition of wellbeing. The terms wellbeing, quality of life, happiness, life satisfaction and welfare are often used interchangeably (although some disciplines draw distinctions between them) (Allin 2007, 46) Paul Allin became Director of the UK’s Office for National Statistics’ Measuring National Well-being programme. As he acknowledges above, there are a number of terms used as if […]continue reading →
2.2Measuring well-being to improve human welfare – a brief history
The measurement of well-being and quality of life for policy-making has recently been described as ‘an idea whose time has come’ . Articles on happiness and well-being averaged less than five a year in the journals covered by the EconLit database in the 1990s. By 2008 this had risen to over 50 each year . Bache and Reardon  historicise […]continue reading →
2.3Audit Culture, value and public management
[T]he ‘fact of audit’ reduces anxiety, or more positively, produces comfort. (Power 1994, 307) One of the effects of developing better measures of well-being and human progress is that we are measuring more things. More than this, we are measuring things for more reasons. Some argue that this is just because we can, or a more cynical description might be […]continue reading →
Just as policy decisions became less fathomable to people, NPM also changed the relationship between people and policy in other ways. Members of the public were increasingly regarded as customers, and compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) was introduced. CCT requires local council services to be tendered out, and the winning contract going to the most ‘efficient’ tender. The political relevance of […]continue reading →
2.3.2So, what is value?
To complicate the issue further, ‘value’ not only refers to what counts (what is valuable, or of value), but how to count. It can also be used to describe our values—as the moral codes we live by in terms of what is right and wrong. In this sense the word and meanings of value are incredibly important when thinking about […]continue reading →
2.3.3Economics, value and human behaviours
As observed by the historians of the hedonimeter , economics has trends: periods of time where ideas, approaches and aspirations for what should be possible ebb and flow. This is not unlike any discipline or, to be honest, act of human effort. Following Edgeworth’s failed dreams of a hedonimeter in the nineteenth century, economics largely lost interest in understanding the […]continue reading →
2.3.4What is social value?
There is no single authoritative definition of ‘social value’. Nevertheless, several leading organisations in this field do provide similar explanations of it. These explanations are almost always within the context of measuring social value. (New Economics Foundation, 2016) The debate around value, its definition and its measurement will never be one on which consensus can easily be reached (if ever), […]continue reading →
2.4Conclusion: well-being as a tool of policy
There are rising numbers of well-being metrics, which are increasingly used by those who want to know more about people and populations. These data influence national policies and international initiatives. The use of well-being data to make policy decisions is said to be premised on Jeremy Bentham’s Greatest Happiness principle: that ‘the right moral action is the one that produces […]continue reading →