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May 19, 2022 | by Professor Paul Allin

Measuring Wellbeing: population-level data on how the UK is doing

There are a wide range of statistics that can be used to understand personal wellbeing across a community or country, or to look at broader measures of national wellbeing and progress.

Our role as the What Works Centre for Wellbeing is as a public good, helping people and organisations to understand and use the evidence that’s been gathered to make change.

As part of our Measuring Wellbeing Series, today we publish a new paper by Professor Paul Allin, on the:

  1. Role of official statistics in the measurement of individual and national wellbeing.
  2. Value of having statistics that can be used by the public, businesses, non-governmental organisations as well as for public policy.

Official statistics are intended to serve the public good – they cover a very wide range of topics, and have an extensive intended audience. They are produced to be used within government but also by businesses, researchers, voluntary organisations, the media, and the general public.  

To answer the question, How are we doing, UK?’ the What Works Centre for Wellbeing uses data on personal subjective wellbeing that the Office for National Statistics has been collecting since 2011/12. This gives us good population-level data on ‘how people are doing’ across the UK over time, including through the Covid-19 pandemic. 

There are also long-standing official statistics on many of the other things that contribute to quality of life, or which measure welfare and wellbeing in economic terms. National economic accounts, with the headline measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), have traditionally taken up much of the bandwidth for the production and discussion of official statistics. 

In the case of wellbeing and wider measures of societal progress, we can learn by observing countries and nations (such as New Zealand, Wales or Scotland) whose governments have adopted a wellbeing economy approach. In these countries, wellbeing measures were not only developed and published, they are also intended to be integral to the business of government and to assessing the government’s performance. 

In the UK, how we view wellbeing and progress still seems to be embedded in GDP thinking – that year-on-year growth in production, consumption, and income is paramount – despite calls to build back better after the pandemic and to pay more attention to the state of the environment, for example. 

This is not a reflection of a lack of official statistics on the wider concerns. Rather, it seems likely to be at least partly associated with their current status within official statistics, giving the impression that they matter less than GDP.

Mapping wellbeing data

It is clear that the role and focus of official statistics systems could be broadened so that they deliver quality public statistics that can be used to help get answers to the many urgent questions about society and how we can sustainably improve our lives and livelihoods.

The pandemic has highlighted that there is a significant volume of statistics that are relevant to the public good but which are not official statistics. The challenges now are to identify all relevant sources, to understand that they are fit for the purposes now envisaged, to access the sources, and to produce a coherent picture drawing on official statistics and on other statistics. To explore this, the What Works Centre for Wellbeing has embarked on a new project to understand time-use data as an important source in wellbeing research. 

A mapping of all sources of wellbeing statistics could be of value and of interest, not only as a one-stop shop for access to the statistics but also as a resource for research into how wellbeing is being measured. 

Compiling such a directory would be challenging, as would keeping it up-to-date. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing does have an extensive collection of resources relating to the measurement of wellbeing.

We should now recognise the value of using public statistics on personal and national wellbeing that are fit for purpose, are trustworthy, are trusted, and are used.


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