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Measuring Wellbeing

Summary measures of subjective wellbeing are part of the ESS core questionnaire.

Measuring Subjective Wellbeing in the European Social Survey (ESS)

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The European Social Survey (ESS) provides free access to a rich variety of high quality data on different aspects of wellbeing and other topics for more than 30 European countries.

The ESS has been collecting methodologically robust cross-national data on wellbeing every two years since 2002. The survey includes summary measures of subjective wellbeing as part of its core questionnaire, asked of respondents in each round. More in-depth data on wellbeing is also provided for some rounds where thematic ‘rotating modules’ (which vary from round to round) have focused on different aspects of wellbeing. These data on wellbeing are collected alongside a large number of socio-demographic background variables and questions asking about other important social and political topics, providing researchers and policymakers with a rich dataset with which to explore Europeans’ wellbeing.

Core questions on happiness and life satisfaction

The ESS core questionnaire includes the two most common measures of subjective wellbeing: HAPPINESS and LIFE SATISFACTION. These measures have been asked every two years since 2002/2003.

The ESS core questionnaire includes the two most common measures of subjective wellbeing:
Life Satisfaction


C1. Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?

Extremely unhappy

Extremely happy


Life Satisfaction

B20. All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays? Please answer using this card, where 0 means extremely dissatisfied and 10 means extremely satisfied.

Extremely dissatisfied

Extremely satisfied


While HAPPINESS is usually conceptualised in terms of people’s emotional responses and measures their current feelings, LIFE SATISFACTION is conceptualised in terms of their cognitive or evaluative responses and measures how people evaluate their life as a whole (Clark and Senik, 2011).

These two core items can be analysed both as dependent (outcome) and independent (explanatory) variables depending on the question of interest. They can be analysed alongside a variety of other variables in the ESS, e.g. subjective evaluations of personal health, household income, employment, social conditions or education to understand more about the distribution of wellbeing across the population and factors that may help to promote wellbeing.   A list of topics covered by the ESS core questionnaire is shown below:

  • Health and wellbeing
  • Moral and social values
  • Trust in institutions
  • Education and occupation
  • Social capital and social trust
  • Household circumstances
  • Citizen involvement and democracy
  • Social exclusion
  • Political values and engagement
  • Socio-demographic characteristics
  • Immigration

The growing time series provided by the ESS core questionnaire (which began in 2002/2003) provides opportunities to examine how wellbeing may have changed over time, for example, in response to events such as the economic crisis precipitated in 2008. Combining ESS data on subjective wellbeing with national and regional level contextual data (e.g. Human Development Index or Global Gender Gap Index) provides additional opportunities for cross-national studies examining differences in Europeans’ wellbeing.

ESS Rotating modules

In each round of the ESS, multi-national teams of researchers are selected to contribute to the design of two rotating modules for the questionnaire. Some of the thematic rotating modules are repeated to enable cross-sectional time series analysis. Figure 1 presents the rotating modules fielded in ESS Rounds 1-8. Data from the rotating modules can be linked to the wellbeing measures in the core questionnaire to understand more about potential drivers of wellbeing. In addition, several of the rotating modules have had a specific focus on wellbeing, allowing an in-depth exploration of this topic.

Figure 1: Rotating modules fielded in the ESS Rounds 1-8 (2002 – 2017)

Rotating module on ‘Personal and Social Wellbeing’

As the promotion of wellbeing is an explicit aim of some European policymakers, there is a need for systematic and detailed cross-national data on wellbeing. It is therefore timely that the ESS has included two rotating modules on ‘Personal and social wellbeing’. The module was first introduced in ESS Round 3 (2006/2007), and then partially repeated in ESS Round 6 (2012/2013) where the focus on both personal and social wellbeing was retained. The Round 6 module also sought to incorporate a new validated scale of positive wellbeing and included questions to explore developments in the evidence base on wellbeing-promoting behaviours.

While the core ESS items measuring subjective wellbeing (HAPPINESS (C1) and LIFE  SATISFACTION (B20)) follow the hedonic wellbeing approach which emphasises positive feelings, the rotating module on ‘Personal and social wellbeing’ focuses on the eudemonic approach or flourishing which emphasises positive functioning (Huppert and So, 2009). The concept of flourishing is a multidimensional concept that typically includes concepts such as autonomy or self-determination, interest and engagement, positive relationships, sense of meaning and direction or purpose in life. These indicators go beyond a simple measure of life satisfaction and enable more nuanced measures of wellbeing. The module also links personal wellbeing to social wellbeing, emphasising the importance of interpersonal and societal-level experiences and behaviours.

The module development, including conceptual background, is documented in the Questionnaire Design Template and can be downloaded here:

Rotating module on ‘Family, Work and Wellbeing’

As well as the Round 3 and Round 6 modules that explicitly aim to measure wellbeing, the ESS also fielded a rotating module on ‘Family, work and wellbeing’ in Rounds 2 (2004/2005) and 5 (2010/2011) that included questions on wellbeing. These modules focus on the inter-relations between work, family and wellbeing. Exploring these relations in a comparative perspective adds not only to our general understanding of sources of satisfaction and psychological strain among European populations, but also to the role of national welfare regimes in this process.

The repeat of the Round 2 (2004/2005) module in Round 5 (2010/2011) also enables us to study consequences of economic recession for employees’ wellbeing (e.g. Gallie, 2013). The module includes several questions measuring general wellbeing as well as questions measuring job satisfaction and satisfaction with work-life-balance.

The module development, including conceptual background, is documented in the Questionnaire Design Template and can be downloaded here:

ESS fielded a rotating module on
‘Personal and social wellbeing’
in Round 3 and Round 6

A rotating module on
‘Family, work and wellbeing’
was fielded in Round 2 and Round 5

CES-D8 Depression Scale

The incidence of depressive symptoms is often used as an indicator of mental health and psychological wellbeing. A shortened version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale – CES-D8 (Radloff, 1977) – was included in the ESS rotating modules on ‘Personal and Social Wellbeing’ (ESS Round 3 (2006/2007) and ESS Round 6 (2012/2013)) and ‘Social Inequalities in Health and their Determinants’ (ESS Round 7 (2014/2015)). The CES-D8 depression scale consists of 8 items which ask about positive and negative emotions:

I will now read out a list of the ways you might have felt or behaved during the past week.  Using this card, please tell me how much of the time during the past week…

 Non or almost none of the timeSome of the timeMost of the timeAll or almost all of the time felt depressed?1234 felt that everything you did was an effort?1234
...your sleep was restless?1234 were happy?1234 felt lonely?1234 enjoyed life?1234 felt sad?1234 could not get going?1234

The CES-D8 depression scale has been regularly analysed by researchers (e.g. Van de Velde, Bracke and Levecque, 2010) and is characterised by good reliability and validity. The items can either be analysed as a set to measure depression or single items can be linked to other sub-concepts and analysed separately.


Clark, A. E. and Senik, C. (2011)
‘Is happiness different from flourishing? Cross-country evidence from the ESS’. PSE Working Papers, 2011 (4).

Gallie, D. (2013)
Economic Crisis, Quality of Work and Social Integration: Topline Results from Rounds 2 and 5 of the European Social Survey. London: Centre for Comparative Social Surveys

Huppert, F.A. and So, T. T. (2013)
‘Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being’. Social Indicators Research, 110 (3), pp. 837-861.

Radloff, L.S. (1977)
‘The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population’. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1(3), pp. 385-401.

Van de Velde, S., Bracke, P., Levecque, K. (2010)
‘Gender differences in depression in 23 European countries. Cross-national variation in the gender gap in depression’. Social Science & Medicine, 71(2), pp. 305-313.