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This was originally posted on the RMG:Clarity blog on November 25, 2010.

David Cameron has launched a project to determine the nations’ wellbeing.  The Office for National Statistics is to lead a National Wellbeing Project to find out both what makes people happy and how happy the UK is as a whole.  In saying that GDP is ‘is an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress,’ Cameron is correct; there are many other factors that can impact this.

However, the ONS is likely to find that it is very difficult to measure such an abstract thing as wellbeing.  One option is to ask a lot of people up and down the country, from all walks of life a question along the lines of ‘overall, how would you rate you wellbeing over the last month/ six months/ a year?’ with a simple rating scale accompanying it; this is subjective wellbeing.

This on its own, however, is not enough; the researchers would also need to know some demographic information and other information about the respondents’ experiences in that time period in order to bring a level of objectivity to the index.  In order to produce a wellbeing scale that is comparable to GDP, it is necessary to find a way to correlate various life events ad experiences with subjective wellbeing.

Part of the difficulty with such this project is coming up with a list of all the factors that could potentially affect ones wellbeing.  Such factors can be related to the economy, such as:

  • Job security
  • Job prospects
  • Mortgage security
  • The cost of living

Some of these factors are relatively easy to measure; for example it might be possible to tie in the Retail Price Index with people’s subjective accounts of their wellbeing.  However, there are many other factors that can affect ones wellbeing that are harder to measure, such as:

  • Educational achievement
  • Health
  • Size of social circle
  • Connection with local community
  • Relationships with family/ partner
  • Religiosity

This is where measuring wellbeing can get very complicated; for example, for some people having very high academic qualifications might be central to their subjective wellbeing, whilst for other people it is not particularly relevant.  Similarly, having a religious belief might cause people to report a high level of wellbeing, but one cannot extrapolate from this that those with no religious belief would report a low level of wellbeing.

Another major difficulty is factoring in age.  What causes a high level of wellbeing in people in their late teens and early twenties is unlikely to be the same as what causes a high level of wellbeing in those over eighty.  Furthermore, there is the old problem that correlation does not imply causation; something may correlate with wellbeing but not cause it.

In short, producing an index of wellbeing that, like GDP, is comparable both over time and with other countries is not impossible.  It is, however, a very great challenge and we await with interest the outcome of the National Wellbeing Project.