Understanding Well-being Data

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

Well-being Measures – arguing a right to culture?

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(Article 27 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Before the UK’s well-being measures were finalised, a national debate was administered by the ONS to decide ‘what matters to you?’. The first iteration of the national well-being measures [1] did not account for culture. At the time, prominent commentators from the cultural sector expressed their dismay at this outcome, with one observer concluding in a national newspaper that this was proof that ‘culture was invisible’ to governments [2]. In actual fact, the omission was for various reasons; in part, because there was no validated measure for culture across the UK.[3] But also, the ONS acknowledge the complexity of measuring multiple activities and wanted to avoid judgement on what should count and what not:

ONS considers that the currently proposed measures of satisfaction with the use and amount of leisure time should adequately reflect the effect of an individual’s leisure time on their well-being without making a judgement that particular or specific activities are good for well-being.

(Beaumont 2012, 15)

Avoiding judgement is worth reflecting on for a moment, when you think back to the discussions on who decides whose culture, and the Victorians putting museums ‘into competition’ with gin palaces, for example. Despite this disinclination to ‘judge’, in 2014, the ONS included one of DCMS’ measures of culture from TPS in the national measures of well-being.

The metric is based on whether people have ‘engaged with/participated in arts or cultural activity at least three times in the last year’ and notably only covers England, rather than the whole UK. While it can be contested whether this maps directly on to Article 27 of the Declaration of Human Rights, cited above, the debate [4] and its subsequent public consultation [5] demonstrate the social importance of a measure which included socio-cultural concerns to the nation.

This makes it even more interesting to compare Bhutan’s multiple measures for culture to the single indicator in the UK’s well-being measures. We have encountered limitations on measuring domains of life that are relevant to well-being, and how the decisions of ‘the metric makers’ are largely down to deciding the metric is robust enough. The case study in Chap. 3 of the OECD composing its international index found a theoretical and moral commitment to including a measure of sustainability and yet, the measures of sustainability available were not robust enough.

There is an important tension in committing to understanding culture, community and sustainability, but arguing that these are too complex to capture. There may well be an argument that this is because these domains had not yet received the attention they deserved by Euro-American statisticians, despite the supposed influence of Bhutan. We might also wonder if it is the politicians who do not care for such domains [6] or those who measure and research well-being?

Countering Holden’s claims that culture has an invisibility problem [7], cultural participation does feature in high-profile reports about well-being. As the influential Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress highlights in its report, there is a long tradition of research emphasising the importance of leisure time for quality of life. ‘This research points to the importance of developing indicators of both leisure quantity (number of hours) and quality (number of episodes, where they took place, presence of other people), as well as of measures of participation in cultural events and of “poor leisure”’ [8].

In Europe, levels of ‘access to cultural amenities was a significant predictor’ of well-being in the countries measured by the European Quality of Life Survey [9]. However, the same report states that the accessibility of amenities does not independently predict life satisfaction. Instead, it has a positive impact on all other outcome variables, ‘particularly reducing social exclusion and stress/busyness’ [10]. Therefore, there is international recognition for the role of culture in attempts to both measure and understand well-being, but capturing this is complex, especially if it is not always fully interrogated.

The slippage of the meanings of culture we encountered earlier can also be found in Holden’s exasperation that culture was not going to feature in the ONS’ well-being measures. He uses a broad definition of culture in the same article in which he describes its (meaning the arts) invisibility to policy-makers (2012). These slippages might, in fact, be exacerbating the lack of attention to cultural indicators in larger statistical projects.

Culture and well-being are both ‘complicated’ words and attempts to capture either are contested—whether this is in their definition or in data. Similarly, value and values attract and resist the numeration and research that enable the persuasive arguments people want to make. This makes these insights valuable to different groups, creating a market for this research. The fact that Bhutan measures culture and values in multiple ways in its well-being index, when OECD countries do not, is important to take away from this chapter. Yet, when these are so difficult to define, slippage in meanings is exploited and national statistics offices want to avoid these sorts of judgements, it is difficult to see a way forward.


  1. Beaumont 2012[]
  2. Holden 2012[]
  3. This was partly because the work to include indicators for culture (e.g. within local authority Best Value performance indicators that had been significantly invested in during the New Labour period) was erased with the removal of such performance management strategies by the incoming Coalition government in 2010. See Gilmore (2014) for further discussion.[]
  4. Evans 2011; Oman 2020[]
  5. reported in Beaumont and Self 2012[]
  6. as Holden 2012 describes[]
  7. Holden 2012[]
  8. Stiglitz et al. 2009, 49[]
  9. (Chapple 2013, 98)(The report does not explicitly outline how ‘access to cultural amenities was a significant predictor’ of well-being, however. Furthermore, the question about amenities in the survey, which allows the authors to arrive at this policy recommendation, is: ‘Access to amenities (including postal services, bank, public transport, culture, green space)’ (Chapple 2013, 106). Green space is the most important predictor, but the report is not clear on the degree to which access to cultural amenities predicts well-being. []
  10. Chapple 2013, 52[]