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Is there more to life than GDP and Happiness? (published in RSS News, February 2012)

The Office for National Statistics has recently embarked on a study of how we might measure national well-being. The director of the programme, and former Society honorary secretary, Paul Allin, describes this ambitious project.

"How’s the world treating you?" my uncle always used to ask. I often think of that when looking for ways of explaining the ambitious ONS programme of work to devise and present measures of national well-being. That greeting, so familiar to me, seemed to be asking much more that the conventional salutation "How are you?" not least because it made me pause and reflect, rather than simply respond that I was fine.

Scaling up from the individual then, the ONS programme aims to produce accepted and trusted measures of the well-being of the nation, or how the UK as a whole is doing these days. How’s the world treating us, and how are we treating the world?

The starting point for the programme is the recognition that, for many decades, assessing the well-being of a nation was invariably done using national economic accounts and the headline measure gross domestic product (GDP – how much the country produces in a year) in particular. The system of national accounting was put in place to help stimulate economic growth following the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s. It was vital in managing the re-construction of economies after the Second World War.

From its conception it has always been recognised that – to paraphrase Robert Kennedy – there is more to life than GDP. A host of social indicators and, more recently, sustainable development indicators have been published to provide a broader picture. For over forty years the Government Statistical Service publication Social Trends has drawn on these indicators to provide what the media have come to characterise as an annual ‘survey’ of life in Britain. There is no shortage of good statistical information to describe many aspects of the health and well-being of the nation.

And yet GDP is still seen as the summary measure, the way of comparing how a country is doing over time and how countries compare at a given point in time. One reason may be that the national accounts do add up to a headline measure: one commentator observed that Social Trends is a great read, but "what does it all add up to?" Also, very few people are interested in doing away with GDP or economic growth. The direction of travel we are aspiring to is ‘GDP and beyond’ rather than ‘beyond GDP’.

Organisations like the New Economics Foundation in the UK, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) internationally, have been questioning for a number of years how better to measure the progress of societies. The tipping point seems to have been the publication in 2009 of a report, commissioned by President Sarkozy, into measuring economic performance, social progress and environmental sustainability in France. The commission‘s "stellar cast", so described by Mark Easton, was led by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi and included three British academics. It is no exaggeration to say that the report has resonated around the world, with translations into many languages.

The twelve Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi recommendations and detailed supporting work cover classical GDP issues, quality of life measures, sustainable development and the environment. They revive the notion of the ‘triple bottom line’ of the economy, society and the environment. We are drawing on all of this in taking forward the ONS programme. We have also taken to heart the commission’s call for national discussions, making up "a global debate", of "societal values, for what we, as a society, care about and whether we are really striving for what is important".

National Statistician Jil Matheson put it this way, at the launch of the ONS programme: "Statistics are the bedrock of democracy, in a country where we care about what is happening. We must measure what matters - the key elements of national well-being. There is no shortage of numbers that could be used to construct measures of well-being, but they will only be successful if they are widely accepted and understood. We want to develop measures based on what people tell us matters most. Whatever measures we produce, they need to be relevant. Statistics need to be relevant. It is one of the important elements of statistical quality; relevant to the government but also, most importantly, relevant to the citizen to allow for effective and independent assessment of policy as well as an assessment of how society is doing overall."

So where does happiness feature?

One recommendation from the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report is that national statistics offices should gather information on people’s views of their own well-being. ONS has been including these types of question on its large household surveys from April 2011. One of the questions explicitly asks the respondent to say, overall, how happy they felt on the day before the interview, on a scale from 0 to 10. This and the other questions are based on those used in a number of established research studies into happiness in a broader, psychological sense. While the evidence is growing that the questions work and provide robust estimates of the self-assessed ‘happiness’, or psychological well-being, of an individual, we still see the questions as experimental. There is more to be done on question design and wording and on how these questions meet user needs, as well as on the best ways of analysing and presenting subjective well-being data.

We believe that the subjective well-being measures will be a powerful way to understand the well-being of people across the country and for different places, different age groups, whether people are in work or not, and for other groups. But we want to do more than that. We need to show a wider picture, such as the environment, key statistics on health, levels of education, inequality in income and so on. We could provide thousands of numbers, but that would be too many. The national debate that we carried out during 2011 helped us pick out the key areas which mattered most for national well-being. We are also looking for good ways of showing figures which people recognise as telling a story which reflects their experiences.

What do we mean by the well-being of the nation, .... of citizens overall? This question needs to be answered before we can properly measure it. However, it is proving quite challenging to come up with an agreed definition and a conceptual framework to describe the well-being of citizens and what drives or influences that. Indeed, while some quarters continue to call for a conceptual basis, others take a more pragmatic approach and settle for a framework for what we are measuring: national well-being is, at this stage at least, defined by the set of measures to be presented as measuring national well-being.

There is a school of thought that says the well-being of the nation can be nothing other than the sum of the well-being of all its citizens. Individual well-being is better understood than national well-being. There is an international definition and there are several approaches, grounded in psychological theory, to the self-assessment of individual well-being. Under this school of thought, the task is then to measure individual well-being, summarise how it is distributed, and analysis it against the various internal and external drivers and influences on individual well-being.

Others say there is more to national well-being than this. The approach adopted in the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report, which we are following, is essentially to present a statistical description of all aspects of the economy, society and the state of the natural environment. In such descriptions, structure is provided by the three pillars - economic performance, quality of life/social progress, and the environment - and these pillars, especially quality of life, can be further divided into a set of domains. Cross-cutting issues, especially equality and sustainability might be seen as ‘dimensions’ to be analysed using the domain indicators.

The national debate suggested that the main things that matter to people in the UK for their well-being, and for the national well-being, are health, personal relationships, job satisfaction and economic security. Following the national debate, ONS has been consulting on a set of proposed domains and headline measures of overall national well-being.

I suspect that my uncle never envisaged that his warm greeting would lead to such big issues! It is certainly exciting to be working on a programme that seeks to encapsulate all the things that make life worthwhile – and to do so in a way that is simple, relevant, statistically robust and easily communicated.

To find out more about the ONS measuring national well-being programme, do visit our web pages or contact us at nationalwell-being@ons.gsi.gov.uk.

Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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