Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 6 Relating well-being, values, culture and society

Cultural policy: whose culture is good culture for well-being?

Sport and culture are widely perceived to generate social impacts. There is a long history of academic and evaluation research into the social impacts of sport and culture … This evidence includes individual impacts (e.g. health/ fitness, mental health and wellbeing), life satisfaction, cognitive development, social skills; and broader community impacts such as social capital, increased volunteering, improved community cohesion, perceptions of quality of local area, increased educational performance, reduced crime/reoffending, reduced health care needs and economic development/ regeneration.

Sport is a broad and vague term that includes a wide range of activities.

Culture is defined as a broad term which encapsulates the arts, heritage and museums, libraries and archives.

(The Culture and Sport Evidence Programme (CASE) Taylor et al. 2015)

We encountered how the naturalised relationship between culture and well-being is evident in the 2003 funding agreement between ACE and DCMS quoted at the beginning of this chapter, in which it committed to ‘maximise and exploit the contribution of the arts to … the well-being of the population at large’ [1]. DCMS distributed funding to a number of arm’s length bodies in 2003, responsible variously for sport, the arts, heritage and museums and libraries and archives. The 2003 funding agreement articulated the idea that via ACE, the arts have a specific and mandated role in society. That role is to address societal issues, and in doing so, improve quality of life. Essentially, the arts should help people make the most of these activities to improve their well-being.

What happened to the concern over ‘cultural life’ more generally, you might ask? If culture is described in cultural policy research evaluations (such as this CASE[2] example), as the activities attached to arts and cultural institutions, then what of the culture happening outside them? Why is this not also so for less institutionalised cultural engagement, recently labelled ‘everyday participation’ [3]? CASE is ‘a joint programme of strategic research led by DCMS in collaboration with Arts Council England, English Heritage and Sport England’ [4]. Originally a three-year-long project costing £1.8 million, reports have continued to be published under the CASE programme since.

Arguably two main things are going on in the way the CASE programme is framing culture. One might be that the institutionalising of certain forms of culture means that, by default, a social role must be found for such activities, if they are to receive government subsidy that could otherwise be distributed to other areas of social policy. Secondly, that evidence programmes were established in support of the activities managed by these institutions. So, more evidence is needed to justify the social role of culture, media and sport, in order to provide good reason for its subsidy. Crucially, evidence in support of these institutionalised areas is also more invested in (and more institutionalised) than broader cultural life.

The hierarchy of high art and leisure, or a more popular or vernacular culture, has been contested by cultural studies scholars such as Raymond Williams [5] and Stuart Hall [6]. In the Leisure Studies literature, Stebbins’ binary of ‘casual leisure’ and ‘serious leisure’ [7] indicates that the latter is more ‘important to the wellbeing [sic] of the individual and society’, rather than largely non-productive leisure activities, such as ‘hanging around’ [8]. What are perceived to be bad choices and undesirable leisure pursuits remain a target for change, with personal and social ‘happiness by design’ [9] dominating the discourse of behavioural economics that includes many of the happiness economists we encountered in Chap. 4.

In policy terms, ‘casual leisure’ is often demonised. For example, the description of the 1999 reversal of Bhutan’s national television ban[10] includes a story of soaring crime, drug-taking and playground violence [11]. Richard Layard explains that ‘a third of parents now preferred watching TV to talking to their children’, warning that the introduction of television as leisure coincided with the ‘deteriorat[ion of] family relationships, the strength and safety of communities and the prevalence of unselfish values’ [12].[13] Bhutan was the first nation to begin measuring what it calls ‘gross national happiness’ (GNH). In 1972, the Fourth King declared GNH to be more important than Gross National Product (GNP, similar to GDP), and from this time onward, the country oriented its national policy and development plans towards GNH. There is, of course, a longer history: the 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that ‘if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist’ [14]. Its measures incorporate the interdependence of aspects of well-being and the belief ‘that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other’ [15].

The story of Bhutan maintains a persistent place in narratives of the second wave of well-being which are otherwise Euro-American centric. However, the tale we are told is often partial. Bhutan’s social and cultural life was idealised in descriptions of the importance of well-being measurement as a political and social project. The innovations of the Bhutanese happiness index were greatly praised. Yet, the domains and indicators themselves are rarely discussed. As Karma Ura, President of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH research, explains:

The term subjective well-being, by which happiness is known in western literature, is telling.

(Ura 2011, 1)

Ura is highlighting how happiness is an individualised concern in the West, rather than something oriented around an idea of society, and also pointing out that a fair society should be encouraged by: ‘enlightenment education with respect to ethics, intellect and wisdom by its population in order to reach happiness (dewa)’ (ibid., 2). He continues that social welfare accrues from ‘unquantifiable spiritual and emotional well-being’ (ibid., 2). Indeed, the Bhutanese well-being index has a whole domain called ‘Cultural Diversity and Resilience’, including ‘native language’, ‘cultural participation’, ‘artisan skills’ and ‘conduct’ [16]. In short, Bhutan’s innovations in well-being measures incorporate many of the cultural aspects of social life that are missing from the other objective lists described in Chap. 3 from the likes of the OECD and the ONS.

Bhutan’s attention to social and cultural life can be explained by the fact that—as a nation—it was less entrenched in the measurement and policy histories that informed many of the Euro-American approaches. They were therefore better equipped to capture ‘culture’ and ‘well-being’ without the institutional histories that Raymond Williams describes and as outlined in the evaluation research that opened this section. The question may not only be, ‘why is Bhutan measuring different aspects of socio-cultural life than OECD countries?’ We might also ask the question, ‘why are OECD countries so keen to follow Bhutan and measure well-being, but not follow how they are measuring well-being?’ If we look at the well-being agenda more generally, we find a tendency to borrow (or appropriate) aspects of a different culture and adapt them. These modifications suit institutional histories of those doing the borrowing, indeed in the case of the wellness industry, to capitalise on them. This is the case of mindfulness (borrowed from Buddhism) and yoga, of course; Western versions of both of these cultural practices have been criticised for hollowing out their meaning, even disrespecting the beliefs of the cultures that have been borrowed from.[17]

To return to the narrative of television and Bhutan’s happiness and leisure policy is, of course, informed by value judgements that preconceive what is ‘good’ leisure for individuals and society—and what is not. These value judgements are—of course—inherited. They are evidenced by Layard using statistics but interestingly, as noted in Chap. 4, White and Dolan (2009) found that time spent with children is relatively more rewarding than pleasurable, whereas time spent watching television is relatively more pleasurable than rewarding.

What is also interesting is that the reversal of the television ban (1999) happened but one year after GNH was announced as Bhutan’s objective [18] and a few years before the indicators were developed. This marks a move from simply aiming for GNH, as the Fourth King aspired to in 1972, to actually measuring it. Bhutan was becoming less culturally closed to Western developments including the television—and social indicators. Ironically, Layard notes that the impact of television on Bhutan society ‘provides a remarkable natural experiment in how technological change can affect attitudes and behaviour’ [19], without acknowledging that measuring society to drive objectives will also lead to cultural and societal change. Well-being indicators being a good technological development and television not, we must assume, in this value system.

Choices over what is good for well-being and what has value in these terms are cultural decisions in their own right. This can be demonstrated in Bhutan’s choice of indicators when compared to other decisions that we comprehensively covered in Chap. 3. It is also worth noting that the influential Sarkozy Commission that was established in 2007 and reported in 2009 [20] references the importance of cultural specificities and recommends that each nation find its own measures of well-being [21]. Crucially, it is not only in the inclusion of a cultural domain that Bhutan differs, but also in the relationships drawn between social and cultural values within the structures of meaning that Williams advocates (cited earlier). Bhutan also included within its education indicator ‘the cultivation and transmission of values’ [22] suggesting that these intertwined social, cultural and religious values are at the heart of the rationale for developing the GNH index in the first place. By contrast, social and cultural values held a precarious place in the project to establish the UK’s well-being index, which we return to at the end of this chapter. For now, we must turn to how social value and cultural value each has a different meaning in UK social and cultural policy.


  1. DCMS 2003a, 15[]
  2. The CASE programme ran from 2008 and its outputs are hosted here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/case-programme#case-programme-the-resources, although only up until 2013, whereas the report cited in this chapter is from 2015. A special issue of the journal Cultural Trends reflected on the programme, and that publication is useful background to this story. See O’Brien (2012).[]
  3. Miles and Sullivan 2010[]
  4. UK Government 2021[]
  5. [1958] 1989a[]
  6. various, see 1977 and McRobbie 2016[]
  7. Stebbins 1997, 1999[]
  8. cited in Blackshaw and Long 2005, 248[]
  9. e.g. Dolan 2014[]
  10. Until 1999 TV had been banned in Bhutan, as had public commercial advertising. Layard (2006) describes this in greater detail, acknowledging that we shouldn’t generalise from one event.[]
  11. Layard 2006, 78[]
  12. Layard 2006, 77, 78[]
  13. There is a rich area of media studies which interrogates these assumptions about media consumption and ‘deviance’ (i.e. Eithne Quinn’s work on hip hop, 2020). While Bhutan’s case is an interesting ‘test’ environment, as it had not previously had television, other studies using longitudinal data have been unable to substantiate a link (i.e. Shi et al. 2019).[]
  14. Ura 2010 via Helliwell et al. 2012, 111[]
  15. Helliwell et al. 2012, 111[]
  16. Helliwell et al. 2012, 115[]
  17. See Purser’s (2019) critiques of ‘McMindfulness’.[]
  18. Layard 2006, 77[]
  19. Layard 2006, 7[]
  20. Stiglitz et al.[]
  21. Stiglitz et al. 2009, 18[]
  22. Ura et al. 2012, 11[]