Making Wellbeing Count for Policy: Patterns and trends in personal, social and societal wellbeing in Europe and the UK.

Lead Research Organisation: City, University of London
Department Name: School of Social Sciences


Recent years have seen a huge growth in interest in the concept of wellbeing, and this has been matched by a steady increase in the amount of data available for studying it. After the so-called Stiglitz report commissioned by French President Sarkozy, a number of other governments have followed suit and taken a more proactive approach to the measurement of wellbeing. In November 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron launched the Office for National Statistics's Measuring National Wellbeing Programme. At the time, a source in the PM's office said "next time we have a comprehensive spending review, let's not just guess what effect various policies will have on people's wellbeing. Let's actually know." However there has been relatively little attention so far to appropriate policy responses to emerging findings.

This project starts to address this shortfall making extensive use of the European Social Survey, a well-established cross-national dataset with high methodological standards. Since 2002, the ESS has included a small number of questions measuring different elements of wellbeing: the degree to which individuals feel happy and satisfied with their own lives (personal wellbeing); the extent to which they feel integrated and included in their social surroundings (social wellbeing); and the evaluations citizens make of the performance and values of their society at the national level (societal wellbeing). In addition, on two occasions (2006 and 2012), the survey has included a whole module of questions about social and personal wellbeing. The resulting data from the 2012 fieldwork recently became available for 24 countries and the remaining countries' data will be released in Spring 2014.

The approach comprises three strands. The first stage uses the data to map the European wellbeing landscape, noting the differences between countries, over time, and between different measures. It will also explore the factors (or 'drivers') that seem to be associated with wellbeing, and how these also vary between country, over time and for different measures. It will aim to identify inequalities in wellbeing and to establish where these are most and least apparent. Building on previous work, we hope to discover how people's individual wellbeing is related to their evaluations of the quality of their societies, and how strongly, if at all, the two are linked. It will also look at the relevance of the 'Five ways to well-being' - a tool which is being used by local authorities, health professionals and community groups across the UK to improve wellbeing.

The second strand of the project uses these data to develop headline indicators of wellbeing that best capture the complexity of its many aspects. In doing so it attempts to accurately represent both the structure of the data and the many theories of what wellbeing is. Each differently designed set of indicators has implications for the way they are communicated and to whom.

The final strand is focused on the use of wellbeing data in policy analysis. Drawing on the previous stages of analysis, the project team will consider whether the variations in wellbeing across Europe call for policy responses, and if the 'drivers' that are revealed point to any policy priorities. We will select three areas of policy, examine what types of evidence currently inform how these policies are made, and then develop policy recommendations by integrating the well-being data into the policy process and other types of evidence, working with policy makers in a series of seminars. It will use these recommendations, together with an analysis of cross-Europe levels and changes in well-being and set of easily accessible headline indicators of population well-being, to create interest in the findings across a broad audience. The intended ultimate outcome is greater credibility of, and appetite for, the use of subjective well-being data in policy making and better informed debates on political goals.

Planned Impact

Impact summary

The overall aim of this project is to help policy-makers make decisions that will improve well-being in the UK. We believe this project will have a positive impact on the following groups:

1. Policy-makers. The Government has explicitly stated that it ultimately wants well-being to guide policy. However, policy-makers are still struggling to meet this goal. Part of the challenge is to build up a solid and consistent evidence base on the factors associated with higher well-being - this is something that academics have been steadily grappling with over the last few decades. But a bigger challenge is to reach policy recommendations based on the findings. This requires integrating well-being analysis with conventional analysis. For example, knowing that temporary work contracts are associated with lower well-being is useful, but how can one integrate such a finding into decisions about labour market policy which are informed by evidence that, for example, restricting temporary contracts might increase unemployment, or reduce productivity, each of which in turn also has well-being impacts? Our work will provide an opportunity for policy-makers to think through these challenges and recognise the trade-offs and synergies, and to explore the tools for dealing with them. We don't imagine this process reaching a conclusion during this project, but it will make clear to policy makers the potential impacts of well-being evidence, and by redefining some of the trade-offs policy makers face, help set an agenda for future work in government and academia. Ultimately this line of work should lead to better policy decisions, ones which optimise well-being now and in the future.
2. Office for National Statistics. Analysis of the European Social Survey may provide lessons for the collection of SWB data in the UK, and our communication of the results might inform the communication of SWB data by the ONS.
3. Civil society stakeholders. The evidence from the reports, websites and the policy seminars will provide evidence to inform civil society priorities, as well as provide evidence to support (or challenge) particular lobbying stances.
4. Students. The Edunet tool will provide an educational tool to help students understand well-being and learn about standard statistical techniques.
5. The UK public. The public will benefit from this project in two ways. In direct terms, our dissemination strategy will aim to reach large media outlets such as the BBC and national newspapers. The public will be able to read about the factors associated with high well-being. In some cases, they may be able to make adjustments to their own lives to increase well-being. Or they may be able to make better informed decisions about the policies they might support. Indirectly, if policy-makers are successful in integrating well-being evidence into policy-decisions, this should lead to better well-being for all.


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Description Our overarching activity plan involved unpacking 'wellbeing' into three distinct but related fields of study, and then for each of them exploring how they differed between countries and over time. We also sought to explain what drives these outcomes.

We constructed two new composite indicators that built on previous work in the field: The Cambridge team refined the concept of 'flourishing' to create a ten-item measure of Comprehensive Psychological Wellbeing (CPWB). The City team combined nine items from the core of the European Social Survey time series into a single scale measuring Perceived Quality of Society (PQOS). In addition NEF used the 'mean pair distance' between cases to examine inequalities in respondents' life satisfaction. In all three strands of work we discussed the measures and the associated results with policy experts to draw out implications for the future presentation and communication of our data and its impact on policy making.

In relation to the three strands of wellbeing analysis, key findings were:
Specific indicators tell a different story than the single score. The UK ranks 8th out of 21 countries in terms of optimism, but is 20th of 21 in terms of sense of vitality.
Using the comprehensive measure, wellbeing has generally increased from 2006 to 2012, with the percentage of the population who are flourishing increasing in every country.
The largest differences are found within those countries and groups with the lowest overall wellbeing. The greatest opportunity to improve wellbeing in a country is to begin with those with the lowest wellbeing, particularly unemployed and older individuals, through population-relevant interventions.

Inequalities in Life satisfaction:
Large differences in wellbeing between population groups are not inevitable: Although those of an ethnic minority, on low incomes or with low education often have lower average wellbeing, this is not always the case, with some countries showing almost no difference. This suggests that policy could aim to reduce or eliminate these inequalities.
Economic factors drive inequalities in wellbeing: Most notably, a country's unemployment rate is strongly associated with higher levels of inequality in wellbeing.
Good governance may be one of the best ways of reducing wellbeing inequality. Having low levels of corruption and high levels of voice and accountability, for example, are associated with lower inequalities in wellbeing. This effect goes above and beyond the effect of governance on unemployment or economic growth.

The more marginalised groups in society - women, those who claim membership of a discriminated group, and those with lower education - have a more negative view of the quality of society. Those in middle aged groups (25 to 64) also have more negative views. This suggests that our democratic and legal institutions may need to do more to engage with these groups.
Democratic satisfaction is consistently higher than satisfaction with the economy and the government in the UK, with a similar pattern elsewhere in Europe
Nearly all countries exhibited a considerable dip in economic satisfaction in 2008, at the height of the recession, although this dip was particularly pronounced in the UK.
There are marked regional inequalities in PQOS within the UK, with London and the South East having high levels of economic and governmental satisfaction compared to other regions, particularly the Midlands.
Exploitation Route Academic: Our analysis was largely confined to the UK because of our primary focus on policy relevance. Others could apply our work to other European countries - or clusters of countries - to explore the specific drivers of different forms of wellbeing outcomes in specific contexts.
Non-academic: There remains scope for future work that departs from the limitations identified in the national level data drawn upon in our project, in order to identify data courses with the greater granularity required to explore variations in smaller geographical areas and within particular subgroups of interest to policy makers.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy



Democracy and Justice

Description Kai Ruggeri and colleagues have presented two papers at international conferences based on the project. The paper presented in Belgrade, Empirical Psychology and Policy: Replicating Nudges and Boosts in Serbia, replicated measures from the 21 countries in Round 6 of the European Social Survey. Ruggeri's team also presented project related results to OECD during the period. In the UK, Nancy Hey from the What Works Wellbeing Centre has made use of the material from the engagement workshops mentioned in the original submission. In particular, she wrote a blog on the '5 ways to wellbeing' findings and it has been the most popular of all blogs in 2017-18 and continues to see daily interest; It has supported the loneliness strategy and a focus on adult learning too. The findings on governance have also been used by the WW Centre in some of the commentary on the EU referendum and the General Election that followed. The governance findings have been connected up with work from the Centre for Public Impact and the Institute for Government.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal

Policy & public services

Description Five Ways to Wellbeing Policy Roundtable 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Policy roundtable on the Five Ways to Wellbeing, 18 January 2016. Collation of existing practice from participants in relation to the Five Ways, reflection on the most successful 'ways' and ideas for pursuing the strategy in local contexts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Governance and Perceptions of Society Roundtable 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was the second of three policy workshops we undertook as part of the final month of the project. 20 invited participants discussed interim findings presented by the team.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Wellbeing Inequalities Policy Roundtable 12 Jan 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact 15-20 policy makers and professionals attended a roundtable on 'Inequalities in Wellbeing' with presentations by two of the partners in the project, followed by a structured discussion. Notes of the event were circulated to all participants afterwards and the insights fed into our forthcoming report which will appear in April 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016