In 2013, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produced global guidelines for measuring subjective wellbeing. This laid out evidence-informed recommendations to support a standardised approach among OECD countries’ National Statistical Offices.
A decade on, and in response to developments in practice and advances in research, their new paper – Subjective well-being measurement: current practice and new frontier – reviews how the guidance has been adopted in OECD countries and where it needs to go next.
Here, we summarise the paper, discussing its key findings and the future of wellbeing measurement.
To understand the uptake of the 2013 recommendations, The OECD have looked at measurement in practice, assessing which subjective wellbeing indicators are being included in national frameworks and household surveys.
Since 2013, there has been an increase in countries using the following indicators:
- Evaluative measures, for example life satisfaction.
- Positive and negative affective measures, such as happiness and anxiety.
- Eudaimonic measures, capturing if what we do is worthwhile.
While many countries have now adopted a standardised measure of life satisfaction, using a 0-10 point scale, the measurement of affective and eudaimonic wellbeing remains less harmonised.
- Over 80% of OECD countries collect life satisfaction data at least annually.
- Most OECD countries are collecting affect measures, but in non-standardised ways.
- Fewer countries measure eudaimonia – feeling what you do is worthwhile – but sometimes similar concepts and measures are captured, such as meaning, autonomy, self esteem or optimism.
In the UK, a range of recommended measures are collected regularly by the Office of National Statistics, in the form of ONS4.
“Findings from practice help direct future work, in the sense that the convergence around OECD recommendations for life satisfaction data mean there is little need, or desire, to change practice. Findings from affect and eudaimonic measurement, however, suggest that future efforts by the OECD to clarify, expand or rework recommendations for these indicators would perhaps be welcomed.”1
Policy use of subjective wellbeing
The OECD’s paper explores why subjective wellbeing data matters and how it can be used by different countries, in particular its role in policy.
A growing number of governments, community organisations and businesses have begun to collect subjective wellbeing data, and use it to monitor important trends and to inform decision-making processes.
The paper includes examples of policy applications and their use in practice. It concludes that, while many member states use subjective wellbeing data for reporting and monitoring, only some are then using the insights for policy design and implementation.
Current measurement practice
Current OECD country measurement of a range of aspects of wellbeing including:
Positive Affect – Feeling Good
- happiness and feeling cheerful
- feeling calm, relaxed or peaceful
- the ability to enjoy activities in one’s life, feel full of life
- on smiling or laughing a lot
- feeling worried, nervous and anxious
- feeling depressed, sad, unhappy or downhearted
- feeling tired or exhausted
- feeling angry, annoyed or irritable
- feeling stressed, strained or overburdened
Eudaimonia and Functioning Well
- feeling one’s life has meaning, purpose or is of use
- hope and optimism
- self-determination, autonomy, self-actualisation: able to make up own mind
- ability to cope: able to deal well with problems
New frontiers of subjective wellbeing measurement
Having mapped current practice, the paper then explores potential new areas of wellbeing measurement, looking at specific topics for future work and narrowing down priority areas.
Suggestions for further analysis, testing or development include:
- Revising recommendations for affective measures to consider additional states such as feeling tired, calm, or relaxed. See our discussion paper Definition and measures of subjective wellbeing.
- Thinking of a more comprehensive way to measure eudaimonia that asks whether life is meaningful or worthwhile, and adding hope and optimism which capture something more distinct. Hope has recently been added to the UK Measures of National Well-being Dashboard. Join our online event to explore the concept of hope and its measurement on Wednesday 1 November.
- Developing extended or experimental modules including ways to capture children and young people’s subjective wellbeing, different cultural contexts and domains of satisfaction – for example with services or aspects of life.
The OECD is committing to do more measurement work in these three focus areas in the coming years.
The Centre’s role
Over the last nine years, the Centre has used wellbeing data in our analysis and research; providing the OECD’s review with evidence of current practice. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing is cited as an example of an institutional structure that uses subjective wellbeing data in policy design, research and evaluation throughout. The UK was the first country in the world to measure eudaimonia, or purpose, at a population level and the Centre was the first to use this data in analysis.
The OECD’s review highlights specific work from the UK and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing including:
Life Satisfaction interventions review
What works to improve ONS4 personal subjective wellbeing?
Mental wellbeing WEMWBS interventions
Children and young people’s wellbeing concepts and indicators
Maximising local area wellbeing
Wellbeing methods series
Conclusions and next steps
- OECD member countries have increasingly used harmonised measures, and started to gather data frequently. This is not yet always consistent or fully embedded.
- The guidelines remain relevant and wholesale change is not needed, but new research in some areas suggests evidence gaps.
- Making more data available more frequently could encourage greater research into use of the data and make these measures more attractive to use. Improving the availability of indicators may encourage more research into their applications, which could incentivise future use.
- Important to continue to encourage regular data collection and enhance the indicators to cover more accurately the affect and eudaimonia domains. Practice suggests that there may be a benefit to clarify, expand or rework recommendations for these indicators. In particular for eudaimonic measures, which are more difficult to define and are often interpreted differently.
- Use of the data also matters – the Centre has a wide range of examples, showcasing the ways in which each type of data can be used, which may encourage more policy makers to utilise it.