The Many Dimensions of Wellbeing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Politics and International Studies


Government policies are often justified by their potential contribution to the growth of GDP, and yet the sense that it is a flawed measure, failing to capture much of people's experience of economic progress (or otherwise) is increasingly widespread. A good deal of academic research in the past decade or so has therefore explored alternative measures of how well society is doing. One leading contender is the measurement of people's well-being more directly, through surveys. The Office for National Statistics has developed a set of well-being indicators, and the What Works Centre for Well-being has been exploring the concept and measurement of well-being.

There is no consensus, though, about how to define and measure well-being in a way that can be measured in official statistics and used by policy makers. In the academic literature there are several approaches to the definition of well-being, ranging from self-evaluation to moods or feelings to lists of 'objective' material, social or psychological needs. As one WWWC report puts it: "Most lists of wellbeing dimensions are based either on the author's theoretical background or their personal preferences." As a result, there are also many different approaches to measurement, and there has been a proliferation of surveys and dashboards, produced by different organisations as well as official statisticians. Not only are these all different, with unstated or varied theoretical rationales, they are also not as useful as is needed for everyday policy because they typically consist of a large number of indicators. Developing useful well-being indicators as an alternative to the conventional use of GDP to guide policy choices therefore requires finding ways of substantially reducing the number of possible well-being indicators to a few that are also ethically and politically legitimate as well as psychologically valid. The many dimensions of well-being need to be reduced for practical purposes without losing sight of the need for a pluralistic concept of well-being.

Our inter-disciplinary proposal therefore offers a new approach to the work on developing well-being measures policymakers can use. One aspect is ethical: in a democratic country, what people of different kinds - different places, incomes, genders, beliefs etc - themselves say contributes to their well-being is essential for legitimacy. We will explore through deliberative methods and interviews what are the legitimate sources of difference in definitions of well-being. A second aspect is whether the plentiful existing data on well-being indicators in fact reflect the ethical or psychological features we can identify, and can statistical methods therefore enable the production of a small number of measures that would be useful to policymakers?

Planned Impact

The many dimensions of well-being: impact summary

Many people consider that the measurement of economic progress needs to extend beyond the traditional metric of growth in GDP. The measurement of well-being as a holistic indicator of progress is an appealing alternative yet although the need to quantify well-being for policy purposes is well recognized there is little agreement on the selection of specific measures or frameworks for policy purposes. This interdisciplinary project, marrying philosophy and economics, will contribute to building a consensus, to enable wellbeing-based policies, as well as contributing to the growing scholarly literature is to sustain policy engagement. It will investigate sources of variation in well-being that reflect subjective needs and are ethically grounded as well as democratically legitimate, while at the same time producing a reasonably small and agreed indicator set for practical purposes.

The main beneficiaries will be policymakers in central and devolved or local governments who would like to implement policies focused on enhancing well-being, and so - ultimately - all of their citizens. There is growing interest in the practical application of wellbeing policies, in countries such as New Zealand and the Netherlands as well as the UK and through international organisations including the OECD and the European Commission with its 'GDP and Beyond' work. In addition to policy engagement at the international and national level, we will also reach out to our networks in the UK's devolved nations and our close ties with some city regions, specifically Greater Manchester and Cambridge and Peterborough.

One of the obstacles to using wellbeing measures to guide policies in practice, however, has been the proliferation of surveys and metrics of the many aspects of wellbeing, with a lack of the necessary consensus for this approach to policymaking to become embedded as standard practice. Economic statistics in effect are like technical standards such as three-pin plugs or driving on the left: public debate requires all engaged in it to use the same broadly consistent terms and metrics to enable comparisons across locations or time and thus assess progress. The aim of this proposal is to explore a statistical approach to developing a small number of wellbeing indicators, at the same time testing whether and how these need to very to reflect the different values or interests of different people or groups. For a second hurdle to adoption for wellbeing policies is confirming their legitimacy, all the more important at a time when 'expertise' has been challenged and politics is fragmenting.

As building consensus is part of the aim of the project, in addition to the University of Cambridge research team, and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing partners, we will be collaborating with the ONS and other statistical agencies, and with researchers across our disciplines in the UK and beyond. We will also seek to engage with civil society organisations and think tanks with a deep interest in furthering the wellbeing agenda, such as the New Economics Foundation and Happy Cities.

There will be practical and methodological contributions in addition to our contribution to the various academic literatures, in the form of a tested and validated method for reducing the many indicators of contributors to wellbeing to a relatively few that reflect the varied interests and values of different groups of people in society. We anticipate that the method will be applicable in policy environments, so any interested researchers, policymakers or civil society organisations may be able to apply it for themselves.


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Description Joint workshop with Wellbeing Research Centre, University of Oxford 
Organisation University of Oxford
Department Wellbeing Research Centre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Joint workshop
Collaborator Contribution Ideas
Impact None yet, joint publications possible
Start Year 2021
Description Blog post 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Post on our blog read by many policymakers
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020