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Looking through the wellbeing kaleidoscope: results from the European Social Survey

Across the world, there is growing recognition that it makes sense to measure people’s wellbeing and treat it as a central policy objective. For some this is integral to moving away from a narrow focus on economic growth as the driving force of policy. For others it provides a more democratic perspective on how we understand societal success, as it places people at the heart of the story. Some are particularly interested in the opportunities for double dividends in terms of policies that could improve wellbeing whilst enhancing environmental sustainability. Whilst others hope that a shift in policy focus towards wellbeing will also place mental health issues centre-stage and address the imbalance in funding towards tackling them. In all cases, there is a shared belief that a better understanding of the things that are important to wellbeing, and better monitoring of trends and patterns across nations, will improve policy.

The UK has been one of the pioneers in the move towards measuring wellbeing. In 2011, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) launched its Measuring National Wellbeing Programme, with support from Prime Minister David Cameron. Central to the ONS initiative is the addition of four questions on personal wellbeing to the huge Annual Population Survey, which reaches some 160,000 individuals each year.

Eurostat, the European statistics agency, has also been an early mover. In 2013, the Europe-wide Statistics on Individual Living Conditions included a module of 20 questions on wellbeing, which was answered by some 366,650 individuals across the European Union.

Major initiatives for measuring wellbeing are ongoing across the globe, from Bogota9 to Bhutan, including Canada, Mexico, many towns and cities in the USA, Ecuador, most countries in Europe, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, and even the tiny island nation of Vanuatu.

Whilst there are several examples of wellbeing evidence being used in local policy-making and by community organisations and funders, it is fair to say that the influence of these initiatives on national policy has remained limited.

In a recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the use of wellbeing in national policy, the examples referred to by civil servants were at best embryonic. Often it is difficult to draw direct links – for example, the National Citizen Service has recently been extended, and was subject to an innovative evaluation approach assessing its impact on subjective wellbeing. But it is not clear how much of a role the wellbeing evidence played in this decision.

In 2014, Beyond GDP – From Measurement to Policy and Politics was published by the BRAINPOoL project (Bringing Alternative Indicators into Policy) based on research exploring why alternative indicators in general (including wellbeing) have not had as much traction as hoped in policy and politics. The report concluded with several recommendations, amongst them the need to translate wellbeing evidence into simple, clear messages and examples for policy.

About this report

This report attempts to contribute to that objective by moving beyond the dominant single measure of personal wellbeing which has been the focus of much analysis life satisfaction – to considering four sets of wellbeing-related outcomes:

- A measure of comprehensive psychological wellbeing
- inequalities in wellbeing
- Participation in behaviours believed to improve wellbeing (five ways to wellbeing)
- Perceived quality of society

Looking at these four outcome variables offers different perspectives in wellbeing and moves us towards a clearer understanding of policies that might make a difference. The four chapters of this report consider each of these four foci in turn, using data from the European Social Survey.

The report follows a series of three policy seminars where we have engaged with policymakers, practitioners, and academics from other disciplines, to sense check our findings, explore their implications for policy, and move towards genuine policy action.