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May 17, 2018 | by Nancy Hey

Measuring wellbeing inequalities

In response to rising interest in the differences in people’s wellbeing across the UK, and in keeping with the aspiration to ‘Leave no one behind’, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, and ONS have investigated a range of possible measures of wellbeing inequalities. Here David Tabor, Quality of Life at ONS, discusses the work done in relation to wellbeing inequalities.

We explored a range of ways to measure  wellbeing inequalities. Our goal was to better understand how different groups of people rate their personal wellbeing, so we can usefully identify who is thriving and who is struggling in different aspects of life.

The full report –  Measuring wellbeing inequality: Working paper on the selection of a headline indicator, is available on the NEF website. A summary of the work is also available through the ONS website.

What were we looking for?

The research considered several approaches to measuring wellbeing, and assessed against a number of criteria. These included:

  • being reflective of public priorities – a good measure of what matters in relation to wellbeing inequality, for example helping the worst off
  • easy to compute and analyse for non-specialists
  • easy to communicate
  • high predictive power – provides insight into other trends.

To understand the findings, it important to take a moment to explain that until now, when we measure inequality, we typically have been looking at the differences between groups. This could be the highest earners and the lowest, or in the case of wellbeing: the least and most satisfied.

This makes sense when it comes to something like income, because it’s important to know who in society has the highest earnings as well as the lowest, because there’s a limited pool of potential income and how it is distributed is important for understanding inequality. However, when it comes to wellbeing the research showed that most people felt wellbeing is not zero-sum, because wellbeing is a limitless ‘resource’: happier people do not take happiness from others, in fact research shows that satisfaction is contagious.

This means it’s most useful to weight our measures to look at those who rate their wellbeing in the lowest 40%.

What were the alternatives?

The ONS currently uses a range of measures that look at the difference between the best and worst off – called dispersion measures.  These were found in the research to not be reflective of public and policy priorities. When alternatives were considered there was a significant gap in the research/literature for wellbeing inequalities. In their work, NEF assessed three alternative measures:

  • The average of the bottom 40%
  • The percentage below a threshold on the wellbeing scale
  • Subjectively-weighted average

Based on the analysis carried out, it was proposed that the best option as a headline indicator of wellbeing inequalities is the use of a percentage below a threshold. The ONS does already measure the distribution below a threshold, but we don’t currently use it as a headline indicator. Making it a healing indicator would emphasise it as a key measure of change. Low well-being is defined as a rating of 0-4 on an 11-point scale for measures of personal well-being (i.e. life satisfaction).

Where should the threshold be: 4 or 5?

The NEF report, however, shows that further work is needed to consider which is the most appropriate threshold to use. Using a threshold of 4 or below does reduce the sample to those with lower well-being, yet increasing the threshold to 5 or 6 might allow for a more preventative approach. Interventions could then be aimed at those who are struggling before they slip into very low wellbeing.

ONS has carried out further work to test different thresholds, published as part of the statistical bulletin Personal well-being in the UK: January to December 2017. It discusses in more detail the reasons exploring the possibility of alternative thresholds for lowest personal well-being, as well as the findings from the analysis undertaken.

Next steps

As we mentioned in our previous guest blog [link], the ONS will be establishing a Centre of Expertise for Inequalities. The aim of this centre will be to ensure that the right data are available to address the main social and policy questions about fairness and equity in our society, that the relevant analysis is taken forward and that the most appropriate methods are used. This will involve partnerships across government, academia and other organisations to identify where better evidence is needed and to make better use of new and existing data sources.

As part of this, work is currently undertaken focusing on the lowest levels of personal wellbeing to help uncover the characteristics and circumstances of people and groups who report poor wellbeing. This project aims to help inform policy decisions and improve the well-being of the worst-off in society.

We will also explore whether those in the current ‘medium (5-6)’ threshold might be ‘at risk’ of poor wellbeing, for example by monitoring the size of this group and possible transitions in and out of poor well-being.

We do welcome feedback on the topics discussed throughout the blog, and if you feel you can contribute to this discussion, then please get in touch at

How to measure wellbeing inequalities

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