Measuring our Progress

For nearly a decade, the Centre for Well-being at nef has been calling for governments to measure people's well-being and to recognise that the economy - and economic growth in particular - is only ever a means to an end. Now there is growing interest in measuring and using well-being for policy amongst governments and official bodies in the UK, France, the European Union, the United Nations and the OECD. This report presents nef's contribution to the current debate about how well-being can be measured and how the data can be used to bring about more effective policy-making.


February 16, 2011 // Written by:

Saamah Abdallah, Senior Researcher and Programme Manager, Wellbeing
Juliet Michaelson, Associate Director, Wellbeing
Charles Seaford, Head of Wellbeing
Laura Stoll, Researcher, Well-being
Sorcha Mahony
Nic Marks
Sam Thompson

In November 2010, the Prime Minister asked the Office for National Statistics to initiate a debate on national well-being and to start to measure it. If this is done well, the result will make a real difference to people’s lives. This report by nef (the new economics foundation) looks at what is needed.

A successful society is one in which people have high levels of well-being which is sustained over time. Accordingly, progress can be measured in terms of three key ‘spheres’:

We should also consider the relationships between these spheres. The key relationship is between resources and goals: how efficient are we at achieving the goals we seek given the resources we have? But the constituent parts of this relationship must also be considered: how efficient are our human systems at using resources sustainably, and how efficient are our human systems at delivering our goals?

How can we measure well-being?
Our approach to measuring well-being is based on nef’s dynamic model, developed for the Government Office for Science’s 2008 Foresight project. This model draws on contemporary psychological research and ancient philosophy, and depicts well-being as a dynamic process. The model uses the idea of flourishing: people are ‘flourishing’ when they are functioning well in their interactions with the world and experience positive feelings as a result. A flourishing life involves good relationships, autonomy, competence and a sense of purpose, as well as feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

Measures of well-being should focus on flourishing, and this is best measured subjectively – by asking people about their experiences (their feelings and their interactions with the world) and about their judgements of those experiences. To do this effectively we recommend questions based on established techniques, shown to be robust and reliable. In the long term, flourishing should be measured through a tailor-made survey to capture the richness of well-being in the UK. In the short-term, flourishing can be measured by including a small number of questions within an existing large-scale population survey.

How can policy-makers use well-being data?
People’s well-being is already influenced by the decisions of policy-makers, and measuring well-being directly will provide new evidence to enable them to improve those decisions. Well-being data will have a number of uses in the policy process – they will allow policy-makers to:

For instance, whilst unemployment is already a concern for governments, well-being analysis suggests that it has an even greater impact on people’s lives than standard economic analysis implies, and that dealing with it should be an even higher priority. Other analyses suggest that reduced car use would improve people’s well-being; this could constitute better evidence for the benefits of policies to encourage other modes of transport.

Can well-being affect politics?
Indicators already rule our politics: the growth rate, the unemployment rate and the inflation rate are things that matter deeply to the public and thus to the politicians trying to win votes. If well-being data are to be taken seriously by policy-makers, they need to have this kind of public and political resonance. This means that a headline measure of well-being must:

The ONS and other relevant government bodies should:




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