The Importance of Subjective Wellbeing
Researchers and policymakers alike increasingly recognise the importance of understanding and measuring subjective wellbeing.
Introduction: Why subjective wellbeing matters
Most people would agree that one of the key aims of a democratic government should be to promote the good life: a life which is flourishing, has meaning, and in which people feel happy. In short, a life of high wellbeing. In the past, rather than focusing directly on achieving wellbeing, most countries have tended to prioritise economic growth. The assumption – implicitly or explicitly – is that promoting economic growth is the best way to promote wellbeing. However, the data suggests otherwise. In recent decades, the relationship between economic growth and wellbeing is not as close as might be expected. For example, Hungary is richer per capita than Poland, and yet life satisfaction is 1.3 points lower, while Denmark, which consistently scores highest in Europe on wellbeing, has lower GDP than Ireland or the Netherlands (Eurofound, 2013). This finding has wide-ranging implications. It suggests that, rather than focusing solely on growth as an intermediate aim, policymakers need to look directly at the ultimate outcome – human wellbeing.
Encouragingly, in recent years, the need to look beyond GDP has been increasingly recognised. In 2007, two conferences were organised by the European Parliament and the OECD exploring the best way to measure progress, and wellbeing held centre stage.1 In September 2009, a commission convened by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, advocated a shift “from a ‘production-oriented’ measurement system to one focused on … wellbeing” (Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi, 2009, p. 10). This has been accompanied by a number of initiatives to produce alternative headline indicators of progress, such as the Better Life Initiative (OECD, 2011), which includes subjective wellbeing amongst other measures of a ‘good life’.
Research shows that higher wellbeing contributes to many other important outcomes of interest to policymakers, such as better health and higher productivity at work.
Aside from helping us rethink societal progress, focusing policy on wellbeing has a number of advantages. Research shows that higher wellbeing contributes to many other important outcomes of interest to policymakers, such as better health (Steptoe, Deaton and Stone, 2014) and higher productivity at work (Keyes, 2006). Furthermore, dialogue and engagement exercises with the public have suggested that people can relate to the idea of wellbeing (New Economic Foundation, 2011). By putting people’s own experiences centre stage, wellbeing has the potential to reconnect people with policy, helping to overcome high levels of citizen disengagement with the political process.
Meet the author
New Economics Foundation, UK
The science of subjective wellbeing
The study of wellbeing sits on a strong philosophical tradition. Wellbeing has been the concern of philosophers since Aristotle proposed that eudemonic wellbeing, or flourishing (i.e. living in accordance with your true self) should be seen as a core concept. Since then, wellbeing has moved from the realm of philosophy to that of science, drawing insights from economics (Clark and Oswald, 1994), sociology (Veenhoven, 2008), neuroscience (Davidson, 2004) and human needs theory (Ryan and Deci, 2001).
Academic debates continue about precisely how ‘wellbeing’ should be defined and how it should be measured. There is particular discussion regarding the distinction between factors that are intrinsic to the concept itself and those that are necessary for, but external to, wellbeing. Rather than attempting to completely separate these different spheres, wellbeing may perhaps be best thought of as a dynamic process, emerging from the way in which people interact with the world around them, as described in the model below (Figure 1). Apart from that, contextual factors (e.g. the availability of employment, gender inequalities, health system etc.) and societal wellbeing (e.g. social cohesion) can have an impact on individuals’ subjective wellbeing.
Subjective wellbeing can be a valuable tool for examining
how different population groups are faring in society
Figure 1: Dynamic model of wellbeing
The rise of subjective wellbeing measurement
This growing field of subjective wellbeing research has been made possible by the increasing amount of data available. Wellbeing is inherently a personal experience – it is how an individual feels about their life. It would be foolhardy to decide for another person whether or not they had high wellbeing without asking them how they felt. As such, surveys such as the European Social Survey (ESS) are central to its measurement.
The organised measurement of subjective wellbeing dates back to 1946, when the American Institute for Public Opinion included the question “In general, how happy would you say you are”? However, it wasn’t until 1985 that subjective wellbeing entered official data collection, as part of Statistics Canada’s new General Social Survey. Since then, there has been a proliferation of national surveys measuring wellbeing, not only in European countries such as the UK2 and Italy3 but also in less wealthy countries beyond Europe from Chile4 to Bhutan.5
There has also been an increase in interest in cross-national comparisons. In 2013, the EU statistics agency Eurostat ran a module of wellbeing questions in their Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, meaning that statistics offices in all EU member states collected data on subjective wellbeing (Eurostat, 2013). Cross-national comparisons can be difficult due to methodological variation in data collection between countries as well as the difficulty of conceptualising wellbeing equivalently across different cultural and linguistic contexts. Key sources of comparative data on wellbeing which strive to overcome these difficulties include Gallup’s Global Wellbeing Index (Gallup, 2010) and the European Quality of Life Survey (Eurofound, 2013).
The ESS makes an important contribution to the cross-national study of wellbeing. Not only does its methodology, including careful translation techniques and sample design, allow robust country comparisons, but the rich variety of data provided by rotating modules devoted to wellbeing (see the Measuring Wellbeing section of this site for more details) enable particularly in-depth cross-national comparisons of wellbeing.
Subjective wellbeing in policy
The growing amount of robust survey data available to measure subjective wellbeing can be used by policymakers in a number of ways. Some of the key uses of survey data on wellbeing are outlined below, with examples.6
1. Understanding the different dimensions of wellbeing
There are many aspects of wellbeing, including those that focus on moment-to-moment emotions (Krueger et al., 2009), on evaluations of life overall (Diener et al., 1985), and others that consider wellbeing to be the outcome of satisfying psychological needs such as those for autonomy, a sense of competence, and relatedness (Ryan, Huta and Deci, 2008). Surveys such as the ESS that measure all these various aspects of wellbeing provide a particularly rich source of data with which to explore these dimensions further (e.g. Jeffrey, Abdallah and Quick, 2015). Insights from such data sources, in conjunction with an understanding of the drivers of different aspects of wellbeing, can provide more specificity on wellbeing enhancing solutions than could be achieved if one only had overall measures of subjective wellbeing.
2. Identifying how different segments of the population are doing
Subjective wellbeing can be a valuable tool for examining how different population groups are faring in society. If some groups have lower wellbeing than others, policymakers can start to ask why. Because subjective wellbeing is sensitive to a wide range of drivers, it reveals inequalities beyond those identified by purely economic measures such as income. For example, in the UK some ethnic minorities have particularly low levels of wellbeing and these are even lower than might be expected given their economic conditions (Knies, Nandi and Platt, 2014). One reason suggested for this is that being an ‘outsider’ might lead to lower wellbeing.
3. Understanding the drivers of subjective wellbeing
Measures of subjective wellbeing can help us to understand what drives wellbeing and, potentially, the relative importance of these drivers. The latter may be particularly important where policy faces trade-offs between different outcomes. For example, economic policy often sees a trade-off between keeping down unemployment and preventing high inflation. Although they are often weighted equally in economic analyses, one study used subjective wellbeing to suggest that the impact of unemployment on subjective wellbeing is significantly greater than that of inflation (Di Tella, MacCulloch and Oswald, 2003), suggesting that employment should have a higher weighting in policy priorities.
4. Making cross-country comparisons
The macro-economic and societal factors that determine wellbeing are often best understood by taking an international perspective and making comparisons across countries. Cross-national data such as that provided by the ESS allow these macro level factors, and the policies that influence them, to be explored.
The future of subjective wellbeing
Over recent years, wellbeing research has established a number of key findings. The importance of drivers such as strong social relationships, secure employment and relative income is clear, and policymakers can start acting now to shape policy to improve wellbeing. However, it is also important to recognise how much is still unknown. Our understanding of wellbeing lags far behind other domains such as health or income, which have benefited from decades of research using rich data sets. The majority of research on the drivers of wellbeing is still cross-sectional; longitudinal data will need to be employed in order for policymakers to be more confident about causation. Much more understanding is also needed about the drivers of inequalities in wellbeing, a topic barely explored so far.
In the years since the global financial crisis precipitated by the 2008 banking crisis, there is an increasing focus on additional indicators that go beyond the traditional economic set. In 2013 an expert group – attached to the OECD – was established to continue the work of the 2009 Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress and further consolidate the case for a new approach to measuring national progress. The next few years are crucial in ensuring that wellbeing research, supported by data from surveys such as the ESS, is well placed to inform the economic and societal challenges facing Europe.
Abdallah, S., Mahony, S., Marks, N., Michaelson, J., Seaford, C., Stoll, L., & Thompson, S. (2011)
Measuring our progress: The power of well-being. London: The New Economics Foundation.
Clark, A. E. and Oswald, A. J. (1994)
‘Unhappiness and unemployment’. The Economic Journal, 104, pp. 648-659.
Davidson, R. J. (2004)
‘Well-being and affective style: Neural substrates and biobehavioural correlates’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), pp. 1395-1411.
Di Tella, R., R. MacCulloch, A. Oswald (2003)
‘The Macroeconomics of Happiness’. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 85(4), pp. 809-827.
Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., Griffin, S. (1985)
‘The Satisfaction With Life Scale’. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, pp. 71-75.
Eurofound (2013) Third European Quality of Life Survey – Quality of life in Europe: Subjective wellbeing. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions.
Gallup Global Wellbeing: The Behavioural Economics of GDP Growth. Washington: Gallup, Inc.
Jeffrey, K., Abdallah, K. and Quick, A. (2015)
Europeans’ Personal and Social Wellbeing: Topline Results from Round 6 of the European Social Survey. London: Centre for Comparative Social Surveys.
Keyes, C.M. (2006)
‘Subjective wellbeing in mental health and human development research worldwide: An introduction’. Social Indicators Research, 77, pp. 1-10.
Knies, G., Nandi. A., Platt, L. (2014)
Life Satisfaction, Ethnicity and Neighbourhoods: Is There an Effect of Neighbourhood Ethnic Composition on Life Satisfaction? Presented at Westminster policy debate ‘New insights into ethnicity, social mobility and wellbeing’, London. 16th January.
Krueger, A., Kahneman, D., Fischler, D., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., Stone, A. (2009)
‘Time use and subjective wellbeing in France and the U.S.’. Social Indicators Research, 93, pp. 7-18.
New Economics Foundation (2011)
Understanding the Barriers to Raising Population Wellbeing. A report for the Department of Health and Sciencewise-ERC. London: New Economics Foundation.
Better Life Index.
OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being. Paris: OECD Publishing.
Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2001)
‘On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing’. Annual review of psychology , 52, pp. 141-166.
Ryan, R., Huta, V., Deci, E. (2008)
‘Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia’. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, pp. 139–170.
Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A., Fitoussi, J. (2009)
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.
Steptoe, A., Deaton, A., Stone, A. A. (2014)
‘Subjective wellbeing, health, and ageing’. The Lancet, 385, pp. 640-648.
Veenhoven, R. (2008)
‘Sociological theories of subjective well-being’. In: Eid, M. and Larsen, R. (ed) The Science of Subjective Well-being: A tribute to Ed Diener. New York: Guilford Publications, pp. 44-61.
- See the summary notes on the Beyond GDP conference for more details:
- 'Measuring what matters’, Office for National Statistics
- ‘Wellbeing’, Italian National Institute of Statistics
- ‘Satisfacción con la Vida’.
- ‘Gross National Happiness’, Centre for Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness Research,
- This list is based partly on a set of uses described in the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Wellbeing (OECD, 2013), though we have focused on those uses that are more applicable to cross-sectional surveys such as the ESS.