As part of our Measuring Wellbeing series, we’re taking you through perspectives from practice, academia and policy, highlighting successes, views and challenges. We have case studies of organisations that are measuring and evaluating what really matters; academic perspectives on how we can measure wellbeing well; and views from policy of how these options work in practice.
If something is worth measuring, it’s worth measuring well. Easy enough to agree; harder to put into practice when we look at subjective wellbeing. Yet, even as governments around the world shift wellbeing up their policy priorities, we’re still having really fundamental discussions about what meaningful measures of wellbeing actually look like.
Currently, many different measures are used to capture wellbeing, and some of them are conceptually inadequate or of low quality. The impact of mis-measurement on decision-making, policy, and people’s lives could totally undermine the concept of wellbeing as a foundational approach to policy-making.
What do I mean by mis-measurement? Look, for example, at the ubiquitous ONS life satisfaction question: ‘All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’
While there are acknowledged problems with life satisfaction questions like this – e.g. little sensitivity to change over time; different interpretations of ‘satisfied’; and so on – life satisfaction measures are the most widely used survey measures of wellbeing.
But should they continue to be used and relied on, simply because they have always been used? We can, and we need, to do better.
In my short discussion paper, Measurement Really Matters, I propose that if subjective wellbeing is a multi-dimensional construct, we need a multi-dimensional measure to make sense of it, and measure it.
For policy purposes, we need to identify the levers of change for different dimensions of wellbeing. We need to know ‘what works’ to improve positive relationships, what works to improve emotional resilience, what works for positive emotion or self-esteem. This requires good measures of the external factors and internal resources that have the greatest influence on subjective wellbeing, along with a good multidimensional measure of subjective wellbeing itself.
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