Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

What 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 well-being’ are common expressions in public services and formal reports, from housing to arts councils [1]. While well-being is key to social policy-making [2], it is increasingly distinguished from ‘welfare’ [3] and instead linked to what we now call ‘the wellness industry’, which, at its extreme is seen as a hybrid of clean eating, yoga and meditation [4]. So, well-being can therefore be used to describe health, but more than health; it is key to public services, but is not used to describe welfare, as such—and the very idea of well-being has been co-opted by big business who want to sell us what they want us to believe is good for us.

This chapter asks the question: ‘knowing well-being, how did we get here?’ Its main aim is to present the historical and policy context of wellbeing as an agenda. ‘The well-being agenda’ has emerged as a consequence of people and organisations considering it a priority: as a problem that needs solving, or an aim that warrants achieving. You might be familiar with the idea of a policy agenda: the well-being agenda is bigger than policy, with more individuals and associations involved and with an interest. We will establish how well-being is used, including definitions and traditions of well-being, beginning to see how well-being data[5] emerge as useful for measurement, and how measurement is used to know about well-being in certain ways. Well-being measures have two main uses: to track the health and wealth of nations and to make policy decisions. These involve either evaluating previous interventions or predicting how a future decision might have positive impact. The chapter reflects on well-being as a tool of policy that emerged as a result of an agenda across academic, technical, commercial and political interests. The story of the well-being agenda is important to understanding contemporary society, and the role of data, vital to it.

Some see well-being as synonymous with happiness,[6] say: ‘The measurement of subjective well-being is often assumed to be restricted to measuring “happiness”. In fact, subjective well-being covers a wider range of concepts than just happiness.’)) and therefore arguably only a part of the human experience, and others as an all-encompassing concept to describe the quality of people’s lives [7]. We will explore these aspects in Chaps. 3 and 4. As Veenhoven [8] suggests, well-being as a concept can also encompass broader ideas about what a good life might be; which others, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle saw as connected to how we might envisage a good society [9].[10] It can therefore describe how humans experience the world as individuals, or as society.

Well-being is also used to describe things which aren’t really about people or life at all, such as ‘the well-being of the sector’ when talking about the arts and culture [11] and ‘the well-being of the economy’. We have seen this used recently to justify releasing of lockdown laws which were in place to protect the vulnerable, following peaks of coronavirus infections in the UK [12]. This linguistic trick can lead someone to connect the economy to well-being, when they would not necessarily have done before.

The well-being of the economy is not ‘well-being economics’, however, which aims to re-focus away from economic policy to account for the negative effects of growth on people and the planet. Think of the links between McDonald’s and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, for example [13], and calls for a ‘local economy’. Thus, well-being economics is often ideologically opposite to concerns that we must safeguard the economy, instead directing attention to protecting community infrastructures and interests, while being sensitive to impacts on the planet in a move ‘towards sustainability’ [14].

Box 2.1 Ideology
When this book talks about ideology, it means a set of ideas that go together, as is common in a political ideology, like socialism, fascism or democracy, for example. The well-being of the economy might be thought to ideologically put the economy first, whereas well-being economics wants to foreground protecting people and the planet over economic growth.

Some economists and psychologists, however, might refer to ‘happiness economics’ when thinking about well-being. Rooted in positive psychology and behavioural psychology, happiness economics is based on the premise that what we do affects our well-being, and that people can make better decisions for themselves [15]. The approach has been adopted in policy-making as it offers rationales for decision-making and has also been capitalised on. For example, the digital mental health market was valued at $1.4 billion (£1.1 billion) in 2017 and is projected to reach $4.6 billion in 2026 [16]. This industry commercialises a solution for people’s desire to improve themselves or make themselves feel better. If you take a moment to think about how making people feel more responsible for their own well-being is attractive to those in government who want to be less accountable for our well-being, this may make you feel suspicious of the links across the business of well-being and the governance of our welfare.


  1. i.e. ACE 2018[]
  2. Wolf 2019[]
  3. Scott 2012, 37[]
  4. Cederström and Spicer 2014; Davies 2015[]
  5. You may be used to thinking of data as one thing. In this book, we will use data in the plural, as data are made up of many things. This also acknowledges that well-being data or data about well-being are so varied, as we shall discover.[]
  6. For example, the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective ((2013, 10[]
  7. Dodge et al. 2012[]
  8. 1984[]
  9. Aristotle 1976[]
  10. Aristotle’s ideas of the good society are not without faws. In order for Athenians to have the time to engage in the activities of a good society, slaves performed duties that were manual and thought less skilled. They were considered and treated as an underclass. Arguably, these are not the conditions of a ‘good society’[]
  11. UK Parliament 2018[]
  12. John 2020[]
  13. Vidal 2006[]
  14. see Scott 2012[]
  15. Dolan 2014; Layard 2006[]
  16. Morris 2020[]