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Jul 21, 2022 | by Nancy Hey

Debating the wealth of wellbeing research

The inaugural Wellbeing Research & Policy Conference took place on the 6-8 July this year. It was a space for debate and knowledge-sharing, bringing together academics and policymakers to discuss the latest research, insights, and developments in wellbeing science. 

In today’s blog our Executive Director, Nancy Hey, shares her reflections on the research-focused events, including what the insights mean for measuring wellbeing.

The wellbeing field is flourishing

A core part of our mission is developing the UK’s wellbeing evidence base, and making it available to enable effective decision-making that improves people’s lives.

Since the What Works Centre for Wellbeing was established in 2014, we have seen a growing amount of robust and consistent wellbeing research happening both in the UK and abroad. This is informing confident, practical work in public policy, statistics, philanthropy, community, and businesses. The conference, which took place at the University of Oxford, showcased the wealth of work that is happening in the field of wellbeing.

“The timeliness of data and insights, and putting in the hands of people making decisions, is vital.” Liz McKeown, Director of Public Policy Analysis at Office for National Statistics speaking at the 2022 conference

The importance and abundance of data

The importance of data was emphasised in Gus O’Donnell’s, Centre patron, opening keynote speech.

We know that high quality data plays a key part in understanding wellbeing and improving it. How we measure impact contributes to creating a coherent approach for determining the efficacy of different policies and interventions. This helps to put wellbeing at the heart of policy. 

There is already a wealth of data available across different sectors and focus areas, as well information on how and when to use it. 

On our website, we share detailed guidance on:

We have recently published our data cleaning code as a public good to accelerate analysis by making datasets easier and more time-efficient to work with. We also maintain a bank of wellbeing measures: a searchable database of metrics that can be used to assess changes in wellbeing in a project evaluation.

Looking ahead, an updated ONS Measures of National Wellbeing Dashboard will be released in August. The dashboard includes both objective and subjective measures across the 10 domains of life in the UK. For the first time, it will be published alongside the Economic and Environmental updates, giving a fuller picture of our national accountsViewing wellbeing data alongside other metrics contributes to a better understanding of how the country is doing, like a balance sheet consolidating different components.

Measuring the highs and lows 

Addressing the conference, Professor Daniel Kahneman explained that the goal of happiness does not ignore misery and its causes, but rather clearly acknowledges and includes it.

We need to measure hope, and positive potentials such as trust, as well as despair. This is especially true where we don’t have agency and control through circumstances, which was highlighted by What Works Centre for Wellbeing advisory panel member Professor Carol Graham. Traditionally, research and policy has focused on deficits and not looked at or invested in the things that keep us well.

When we measure the positive alongside the negative, we get a better idea and can learn what matters most. This was demonstrated by John Helliwell who used an example from World Happiness Report 2021: where risks or harmful actions have negative effects on life satisfaction, security and prosocial actions have a stronger positive effect (image 1).

Bar graph indicating the estimated change in life satisfaction on a scale of -.5 to 1 for three positive outcome and three negative outcome variables

Image 1. ‘Benevolence matters for happiness’, Figure 2.4 from World Happiness Report 2021 

An example of how we are currently measuring optimism in the UK is the #BeeWell survey of secondary school pupils across Greater Manchester, specifically the life readiness aspect. It is the first of its kind to use this in practice, and to aggregate findings across a city-region, resulting in an interactive and dynamic data dashboard that enables users to explore the domains and drivers of young people’s wellbeing. This can be used as a model for other explorations.

Measuring positive potentials does not mean ignoring deficits and risks. A crucial part of improving wellbeing is understanding the range of risks that people face and how they view them. While GDP has been a proxy for society progress, it was never intended as one and is silent on risk, fairness and sustainability. 

In contrast, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll provides the first global picture of how the world’s citizens see risk and safety and the differences between perception of risk and actual experience.

The role of resilience is also an important focus when talking about wellbeing as we explored in The Wellbeing State, a blog from earlier this year.

A space for debate

In academic contexts, we need rigorous scrutiny and disagreement to progress methodologies and strengthen measurement. In practice, we have a robust evidence base to be able to use these measures in effective ways, consistently and with confidence. 

The rich roundtable discussion between Professors Diane Coyle, Richard Layard, Paul Dolan and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve centred on how subjective wellbeing and wellbeing frameworks can best be used. This included:

  • The use of experiential measures, including Time Use (Dolan). 
  • Using life satisfaction as a common currency (Layard)
  • Co-creating definitions and measures with people in their context (Coyle).  

Multi-dimensional frameworks are valuable, and we need a way of prioritising between them. Life satisfaction is a way to do that because it tracks traditional ideas of ‘success’, such as money and employment, alongside health and relationships in a way that happiness on its own does not; a point that Professor Kahneman has acknowledged. 

Read more about our work with these leading researchers and thinkers in our measuring wellbeing series.

Motivation for further work

The wealth of research is inspiring, and a gap remains between what we are looking at and how we are implementing this in practice. We will continue to work out how to use the insights effectively and how to make that possible for others too.


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