Introduction: Why we need to measure well-being

How can we measure the success of our societies? How can governments determine whether the policies they implement and indeed the ideologies they espouse have a positive impact on the people that they represent? How can they determine whether they have generated progress or not? How can they identify which sections of their population that they are failing? How can they compare their success with that of other governments’ and thereby learn from one another?

For a long time, governments have relied on economic measures, particularly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to gauge their success. However, it is quite clear that GDP is only a part of the story, and that economic success is only a means to an end. What is that end? The economist Andrew Oswald says the following:

‘Economic performance is not intrinsically interesting. No-one is concerned in a genuine sense about the level of gross national product last year or about next year’s exchange rate. People have no innate interest in the money supply, inflation, growth, inequality, unemployment …. Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier’ 1

Indeed it is hard to argue against the idea that living happy, healthy and fulfilling lives is what people desire most. Contemplating the route to happiness has been a pre-occupation of humans since the time of Aristotle. The US constitution enshrines the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a basic right. Cross-national surveys reveal health and happiness to be the most important goals for societies across the globe, above religion, money, and education.2 More broadly, happiness is related to being satisfied with life, having a good quality of life, or having high well-being.

Figure I.1. Weighted average for each country on 'How happy are you' (0 = Extremely unhappy ... 10 = Extremely happy)

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Given this, it is only right that democratic governments, whose duty it is to promote the welfare and interests of their citizens, should assess how well they are doing in supporting the well-being of their citizens. There are at least three ways that they might do this:

The next chapter briefly introduces each of these in turn. We have avoided the question of precisely defining well-being because different approaches to each measurement rest on different understandings of what it is. Broadly, well-being is taken to be, as in a recent definition by the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra):

‘a positive physical, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity.’3

The role of measurement in government

Before exploring well-being measurement in detail, it is important to consider why governments might want to measure anything at all. There are many ways in which indicators help government throughout the policy cycle. These include the following:

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