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Mar 21, 2024 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

What we know about national wellbeing, and the methods and measures to assess it 2014 – 2024

Over the past decade, our goal has been ensuring that wellbeing is recognised as a meaningful and measurable goal for decision makers in the UK. 

Through our work, wellbeing evidence and data can now be used robustly, consistently and with confidence in a wide range of contexts.

Here, we bring together our learning and resources in this area.

Our foundations

Measuring wellbeing is essential to understanding how we’re doing, track progress, and improve quality of life.

The Centre was set up in response to this need, building on work from the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) National Measuring Wellbeing Programme to capture a fuller picture of our national accounts that goes beyond proxy measures such as GDP and life expectancy. We explored different indexes, figures and methods in a recent blog about measuring societal progress.

Since our establishment in 2014, our focus has been on promoting and using appropriate measures to understand what different organisations can do to improve wellbeing now and for the future. 

To support this, we have established a consistent definition of what wellbeing is and brought together information about wellbeing and measurement on our website and made this publicly available through our interactive e-learning course.

Public dialogues

To ensure our work was informed by the views and aspirations of the public, we ran a UK wide series of public dialogues in 2015. We spoke to over 4,000 practitioners, researchers, policymakers and members of the wider public from across the UK. 

The resulting cross-cutting themes report revealed what wellbeing means to people:

  • Feeling safe – financially comfortable, having good physical and mental health, good food, job, housing, access to natural environment and transport.
  • Feeling loved – respected and appreciated, belonging, having positive connections, time alone, appreciation of difference and feeling part of something bigger.
  • Feeling fulfilled – a sense of achievement, inspiration, feeling valued, fun, learning, opportunities, control, agency and choice 

Along with our stakeholder engagement, this helped ground the Centre’s work in real people’s lives and understanding. 

Taking a life course approach

Our first programme, led by a consortia of world-renowned academics, included a project that explored existing international longitudinal survey data to discover what impacts wellbeing. Specifically, it looked at the drivers of life satisfaction over the course of people’s lives. 

The resulting work included a Centre briefing and blog, LSE’s evidence and policy implications blog and book The Origins of Happiness by Andrew E. Clark, Sarah Flèche, Richard Layard, Nattavudh Powdthavee, and George Ward. 

We have continued to take a life course approach to understanding wellbeing and its drivers. This has included assessing the impact of evidence-informed Five Ways to Wellbeing and uncovering an evidence gap for their collective application.

It has also led us to investigate what works to support wellbeing for specific populations. For example, people with terminal illness. Through our Dying Well project, we brought together academia, policy and practice to share learnings and identify evidence gaps.  Through this work palliative care is now required provision in the NHS.

We have also explored the effect that changes in our health and income have on our wellbeing, and the role of autonomy, power, control, and contributing our understanding to the prevention and promotion of health. Our work has informed the Public Health programme Every Mind Matters.

Establishing ‘what works’

As part of the What Works Network, a core strand of our activity is systematically identifying, assessing and summarising evidence from evaluations that use wellbeing frameworks and standardised measures. 

We have done this to build the evidence base, support measurement usage, and ensure identification of the right measurement depending on the context. 

Core ‘what works’ rapid reviews in this area are:

  1. What works to improve personal subjective wellbeing? – Exploring impact evaluations that use the harmonised ONS4 indicators of  worthwhileness, happiness, anxiety, and life satisfaction. 
  2. What works to improve mental wellbeing? – Synthesising the evaluation literature that uses WEMWBS to map the evidence base in relation to mental wellbeing. 
  3. What works to improve Life Satisfaction? – Two rapid reviews collating high-quality evidence on effective interventions and broad drivers to inform experimental research and policy development.
  4. What matters for our sense of purpose? – Exploring eudaimonic wellbeing, a less commonly researched aspect that is independent from feelings and emotions of pleasure or pain, through a rapid review and new analysis. 

The UK was the first country in the world to measure eudaimonia – our ‘sense of purpose’ – at a population level, and we were the first to use this data in analysis.

To shape future international guidance on wellbeing measurement we attended the OECD conference in 2024, presenting on the concept of eudaimonia, which includes ideas of meaning and purpose.

We have also summarised and discussed findings from World Happiness Reports which are released each year. The report scores and ranks countries based on a question which asks people to value their lives on a scale between 0 and 10.  See all our blogs covering the releases.

Using wellbeing frameworks

Pulling together wellbeing indicators into a framework:

  • helps identify what matters most for wellbeing in a country or area;
  • collates relevant data in one place;
  • provides a true and full account of what life is like. 

The Office for National Statistics has collected UK wellbeing data since 2011, which has been developed into the UK Measures of National Well-being Dashboard.

We have been analysing, explaining and summarising ONS data releases since 2015, drawing out key insights and trends, breaking the data down by different characteristics, and focusing on a particular aspect or measure of wellbeing. Find all our blogs covering ONS data releases.

Last year, we contributed our expertise to the first ever review of the dashboard, helping to shape the future of wellbeing measurement. A number of changes were adopted, including the addition of 12 new measures such as Hope for the future and Satisfaction with time use. These are areas of measurement we have championed and helped pioneer.

Wellbeing datasets, like those collated in the national dashboard, provide a bank of rich insights that allow us to look in detail at short- and long-term variations in wellbeing over time, and to compare different people’s experiences. 

Another important data set is Understanding Society, the UK’s largest longitudinal household survey. To make the survey’s wellbeing data more readily available to non-academic users, we recently collaborated with the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex to develop a wellbeing data dashboard

During the pandemic, we embarked on a major project to understand its impact and map wellbeing inequalities, applying the UK wellbeing framework to create interactive database Covid:WIRED.

Over the last 10 years we’ve contributed to the development and use of frameworks within the UK and globally, sharing examples of practice including:

See also our place and community resources for applying wellbeing in local areas:

The OECD’s Knowledge Exchange Platform (KEP) was launched in 2023 and brings together examples of several nations’ wellbeing frameworks. We explored how it can be used in practice to develop a framework, and talked through a variety of local and international examples of frameworks. 

Improving measures and methods

Wellbeing is a rapidly growing field with measures we can use now robustly and with confidence. Innovation can and is continuing in methodology and measures. 

Our Methods series draws together views from leading experts in the form of discussion papers to further the field of wellbeing measurement, evaluation and concepts alongside a collection of practice examples, which provide real-world insights from across different sectors into applying learnings.

Growing the evidence base

To promote the access to, and the use and translation of, data we have conducted a number of different analyses exploring the relationships between wellbeing and socio-demographic characteristics overtime and by populations.  

Recent examples include:

Explore more of our analysis work.

To build capacity and accelerate access to wellbeing datasets, we created a wellbeing data usage library. This makes it cheaper, quicker and easier to do robust analysis.

Our analysis and research over the years has provided a recent OECD review with evidence of current practice from the UK. The report concluded that a growing number of governments, community organisations and businesses have begun to collect subjective wellbeing data. 

Putting evidence into practice

Wellbeing is the goal of all government and civil society action. To evaluate a policy or initiative’s success we must take into account its impact on national, local, and individual wellbeing.

Social or public value includes all significant costs and benefits that affect the welfare and wellbeing of the population, not just market effects.” – HMT Green Book 2020 – 2.3 

As a bridging organisation, we have developed evidence-informed tools, recommendations and guidance on wellbeing and how to use wellbeing measurement in decision making, evaluations and impact reporting.

Policy making and evaluation

In 2017, we investigated incorporating wellbeing into policy analysis, considering how a wellbeing approach can be used at a strategic level, project level and for appraisals. We worked with policy makers in all areas to understand how to make sense of and use wellbeing evidence and data in their work.

Our landmark 2020 report Wellbeing evidence at the heart of policy set out the value of a wellbeing approach to decision making and introduced the WISER priority areas: Work, Income, Society and governance, Emotional mental health, and Relationships and communities.

To further the application of a wellbeing approach, we have collaborated with leading academics and economists. This includes creating a report, in partnership with the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE, for policy analysts seeking to apply a practical wellbeing approach to appraisal and evaluation. This drew on A Handbook for Wellbeing Policy-Making by Paul Frijters and Christian Krekel, published by Oxford University Press. 

We also supported the development of the WELLBY – a wellbeing adjusted life year – to better value a good and happy life at all life stages. 

Vitally, our work was incorporated into the HM Treasury Green Book from 2018 and in 2020, followed by specific Wellbeing supplementary guidance in 2021. The Green Book is the main Treasury guidance for officials and analysts who work on business cases and appraisals. This is supported by our regular implementation training for economists and policy professionals, supporting over 4,000 people. 

We have explored and discussed creating a national wellbeing strategy through our blogs and podcast including:

Building capacity to measure our hidden wealth

Whatever an organisation’s goal is – improving employment or education – measuring wellbeing can show its wider impact on people and communities and our approach has been to help others include wellbeing measurement in their evaluation.

To practically support wellbeing evaluation, particularly in the VCSE sector, we developed online guidance specifically for charities. It details how to choose the right method, and how to use it to show or evaluate wider impact. 

The resource includes our Wellbeing Measures Bank, a searchable database of different evidence informed wellbeing metrics and measures, to help with selecting the most suitable one. While designed for the VCSE sectors, it can be used by other organisations too. This is in Chapter 5 of the Green Book Wellbeing Supplementary Guidance. 

To support those without wellbeing data yet, we collaborated with Pro Bono Economics on plugging the gap, and have also provided specific support to charities in the form of free advice surgeries.

In 2023 we secured funding to do this directly with other What Works Centres through the creation of a wellbeing evaluation top-up fund. The programme enables existing evaluations to add wellbeing measures alongside their other outcomes to make best use of evaluation resources and learn more about how wellbeing interacts with other outcomes of interest to public policy. 

Measuring wellbeing inequalities

Measures of inequality help us to explore differences between and within different groups in society, and work out ways we can reduce them. Income and health inequalities have well-established measurement and evaluation approaches. 

To reduce wellbeing inequalities, we need to know what it is, what the drivers are, how to measure it, and to make this knowledge available for use. This is an essential part of Levelling Up, which is about reducing disparities in and within regions, with Mission 8 specifically related to wellbeing.

Through our Measuring wellbeing inequalities project, we produced the first report to measure wellbeing inequality in the UK. We analysed the ONS’ Annual Population Survey and calculated wellbeing inequality measures for 143 local authorities 2011-2015. The project also lays out the drivers of wellbeing inequalities, and created a guide for analysts and practitioners on how to analyse data and to assess whether inequality is changing.

We have examined inequality in relation to the EU referendum result and the COVID-19 pandemic, looking at characteristics such as sex, age and employment status.

Our 2021 project with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, the many dimensions of wellbeing, examined why and how wellbeing varies for different groups in society. It explored two streams of work focusing on how wellbeing is experienced for different societal groups, such as those experiencing financial hardship.

Most recently, we have continued to further methodological discussions, introducing four possible approaches to the measurement of progress on tackling  wellbeing inequalities.

Measuring children’s wellbeing

As a collaborating Centre we have been a long time partner with The Children’s Society, who provide children’s subjective wellbeing data for the UK in their annual Good Childhood Report.

In 2021, we worked with The Children’s Society to map out and understand what existing measures and tools are being used in the UK. This showed a gap in appropriate measurement of eudaimonic wellbeing, which the Children’s Society seeks to address in its upcoming 2024 study.  

Since 2016, we have reviewed and analysed the Good Childhood Report, which gives an insight into how UK children feel about their lives. It highlights the importance of regular data collection for young people and allows us to focus on different aspects of children’s wellbeing:

  • 2017 – gender patterns
  • 2018 – mental health and socio-economic status
  • 2019 – factors and fears about the future
  • 2020 – wellbeing during a lockdown
  • 2021 – happiness with life online
  • 2022 – experience of school 
  • 2023 – predictors of overall happiness and hope for the future

We have also explored how children are doing in general and trends since the pandemic by examining findings from a key State of the Nation report by the Department for Education in 2022.

Not only have we amplified findings on wellbeing for young people, we have also been active partners in data collection. For example, we have worked as long-term advisors on #BeeWell since its inception in 2021. The programme implemented and utilised our framework for measuring children’s wellbeing. #BeeWell surveys young people from secondary schools in Greater Manchester and insights are used to understand children’s wellbeing and drive positive educational and community-level change. 

In tandem, we’ve explored a variety of issues affecting young people and what works to support them, including: 

What’s next

To continue to build a strong and relevant evidence base it is imperative that wellbeing metrics be included in evaluations as standard. Groundwork for this has been laid.

We also need living reviews updated with new evidence as it becomes available, and to ensure this data is transparently shared to democratise access and reduce barriers to usage.

We want to see evaluations of Five Ways to Wellbeing application in practice, to investigate how individual actions work together to influence wellbeing, and to understand the framework’s value as a communications tool. This could be applied to other context, to identify what combination of actions or mechanisms works for wellbeing.

Further improving the UK’s data infrastructure is also necessary. For example, measuring wellbeing in schools and linking that data to the national pupil database so we can find out more cheaply and effectively what really works.

Wellbeing indicators are now available at national and local authority level.  If we are to truly address inequalities:

  • This pioneering approach needs be applied to regional, community and neighbourhood levels;
  • Further metrics must be developed for groups that aren’t currently captured adequately in national surveys or where we lack confidence that current measures are appropriate. For example, for people with neurodiversity or disability.
  • Family as a unit for wellbeing, between individual and community levels, warrants exploration.
  • Building the evidence base on eudaimonic wellbeing and measures of hope for the future needs prioritising.


May 17, 2018 | By Nancy Hey
Measuring wellbeing inequalities
Centre Blog
Oct 5, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Wellbeing at the heart of policy: setting out the WISER priorities
Guest Blog
Feb 15, 2024 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Using ONS data to measure progress and quality of life in the UK. Learnings from February 2024
Guest Blog
Dec 11, 2023 | By Dr Elizabeth Simon
Using Understanding Society data to explore wellbeing in London
Guest Blog
Nov 16, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Measuring progress and quality of life in the UK: November 2023
Guest Blog
Feb 16, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Measuring progress and quality of life in the UK: February 2023
Guest Blog
May 18, 2023 | By Nancy Hey,Robyn Bignall-Donnelly
Measuring progress and quality of life in the UK: May 2023
Centre Blog
Nov 9, 2023 | By Robyn Bignall-Donnelly,Nancy Hey,Stewart Martin
In search of a single figure – measuring societal progress in 2023
Centre Blog
Nov 2, 2023 | By Nancy Hey,Simona Tenaglia
England’s Health Index and subjective wellbeing – exploratory analysis
Centre Blog
Oct 12, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Subjective wellbeing measurement across the globe – OECD review of current practice and a new frontier
Guest Blog
Sep 21, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Children’s wellbeing in the UK 2023
Guest Blog
Sep 7, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Why measuring hope matters – exploring #BeeWell data on young people’s life readiness
Guest Blog
Jul 20, 2023 | By Elena Mylona
Learnings from time use data 2020-2021
Centre Blog
Apr 13, 2023 | By Nancy Hey
#BeeWell year two: young people’s wellbeing in Greater Manchester
Centre Blog
Jul 14, 2021 | By Bethan and Meera
#BeeWell – Measuring wellbeing in secondary schools across Manchester
Guest Blog
Jan 22, 2018 | By Andrew Clark, Sarah Flèche, Richard Layard, Nick Powdthavee and George Ward
Origins of happiness: new research
Guest Blog
Feb 1, 2024 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
What we know about wellbeing in place and community 2014 – 2024
Guest Blog

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