Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 3 Looking at Well-being Data in Context

Accounts of Well-being

Example 1 Wellbeing is a positive state that people experience when they are able to meet their needs for strong social relationships, equality of opportunity, rewarding work, economic and physical security, health, and opportunities to participate in cultural activities and enjoy contact with nature. It is enhanced when an individual is able to fulfil personal goals and achieve a sense of purpose and fulfilment in society.

Example 2 Wellbeing is a positive physical, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It arises not only from the action of individuals, but from a host of collective goods and relationships with other people. It requires that basic needs are met, important personal goals are achieved and people are able to achieve a sense of purpose and fulfilment in society, and that they are satisfied with their lives. [1]

The above definitions are examples from a consultation across government and well-being experts, in response to the UK’s 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy. Called Securing the Future, the new strategy [2] committed the UK government to working towards new well-being indicators and to work towards policies with an explicit well-being focus [3].

The final definition that is often assumed as the working definition for the UK’s Measuring National Well-being programme combines these two examples [4], also drawing heavily on the World Health Organization’s definition of health:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

(WHO 1946, 1)

When the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) started to produce working papers on well-being, they began with DEFRA’s final statement:

Wellbeing is a positive, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It arises not only from the action of individuals, but from a host of collective goods and relationships with other people. It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, and that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society. It is enhanced by conditions that include supportive personal relationships, involvement in empowered communities, good health, financial security, rewarding employment and a healthy and attractive environment.

(DEFRA in ONS 2009, 6)

As the previous chapter indicated, there are many definitions of well-being from different parts of the world and philosophical traditions. These different accounts of what well-being is have lineages: they are cumulative; learning from and adapting previous versions to suit who is using it, and for what: to suit its context. The same is true with policy.

Here we have traced the lineage of definitions across policy documents over a number of years, which can be a useful methodology to help understand how meanings adapt in policy documents to suit the context. In other words, we have ‘followed the data’ in a very different way, those data being textual. They are still important data about well-being, however, as they help us understand how well-being is understood and why.

The quotation immediately above is an example of the ONS establishing the lineage of their working definitions. They account for their categories before explaining how they might go about using them to measure well-being. In 2007, Paul Allin, who was to become Head of the ONS’ MNW programme, explained that well-being ‘can best be viewed as a multidimensional, shifting concept’ [5]. Despite indications that the self-named new sciences of happiness [6] were evolving [7], as we explore in the next chapter, some academics fear that the concept of well-being itself has lacked attention, as the ‘empirically-oriented field’ needs more theoretical input [8]. The lack of consensus on how to conceptualise well-being for policy and measurement is a concern, however, when policy-making [9]. As is deciding on what the best methods might be for measuring well-being effects and outcomes [10]. So, as you can see ‘objective well-being data’ involve many decisions: what to measure and how to measure it are key to understanding what are the best well-being data.

Before the UK started collecting well-being data to form its well-being national accounts, the MNW programme took a novel approach to making the decision on what to measure. The methodology chosen to inform this decision became a national well-being debate that was launched by then Prime Minister David Cameron [11] and administered by the ONS. This large-scale exercise collected different kinds of data, using different methods, asking people what mattered to them about well-being; what to measure and how to measure. The UK’s ‘What Matters to You?’ debate received 34,000 responses and has been applauded for its democratic approach to meaning and measurement [12], which we shall come to later.

So, GDP and GNP were ‘national accounts’[13] that used economic activity to measure progress and the international well-being agenda was keen to replace these with new national accounts of well-being.[14] The UK’s MNW debate was to inform this work in the UK, alongside expert consultations, such as the one that wrote the report quoted at the opening of this section. In this context, national accounts are called this because they ordinarily track economic transactions, like an organisation’s accounts. The ONS still do not formally include well-being in its national accounts, a label they still reserve for transactional data.[15] Somewhat confusingly, the economists informing the MNW programme also talk of accounts of well-being too. Their meaning is slightly different. We encountered the two main traditions in the previous chapter: ‘Benthamite-subjective-hedonic-individualistic’ or ‘Aristotelian-objective-eudaimonic-rational’. The shorthand versions of these being pleasure (or feeling) and purpose (or flourishing). In addition to these traditions are three different ‘accounts’ of well-being that are used to understand well-being and inform policy [16]. These are:

  1. Objective lists
  2. Preference satisfaction
  3. Mental states (or what has come to be known as subjective well-being)[17], who wrote a working paper for the UK’s measures of national well-being. However, each country’s index of well-being (collection of individual indicators or well-being) may be informed differently. Again, this is part of the lineage of the account.))

Different ways that well-being might be captured and measured are therefore ‘accounts’ of well-being. These have informed the programme to devise ‘the national accounts of well-being’. We cover the ways that well-being is captured as an account below.


  1. Levett-Therivel Sustainability Consultants’ Report to DEFRA 2007[]
  2. HM Government 2005[]
  3. Levett-Therivel 2007[]
  4. DEFRA 2007[]
  5. Allin 2007, 49[]
  6. Layard 2006[]
  7. O’Donnell et al. 2014; Helliwell et al. 2015; ONS 2015; Dolan et al. 2011b[]
  8. Jugureanu 2016, 68[]
  9. OECD 2013, 11[]
  10. Dolan et al. 2011a[]
  11. 2010[]
  12. Kroll 2011, 6[]
  13. For more information on national accounts, the ONS website explains their national accounts here: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/uksectoraccounts/methodologies/nationalaccounts[]
  14. Some key figures in the well-being agenda, in particular The New Economics Foundation, foregrounded the term national accounts of wellbeing (New Economics Foundation 2009; Diener and Tov 2012).[]
  15. The OECD also hold a useful repository of different country’s national accounts, which is also useful to see similarities and differences (OECD website https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/data/oecd-nationalaccounts-statistics_na-data-en).[]
  16. Dolan et al. 2011a[]
  17. This section on the three accounts of well-being is largely infuenced by Dolan et al. ((2011a, b[]