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Measuring National Well-being: Insights across Society, the Economy and the Environment, 2014

Released: 22 July 2014 Download PDF


This article summarises the outputs from the Measuring National Well-being (MNW) Programme since its launch in November 2010. It shows how Programme outputs have provided a better understanding of national well-being and it summarises domestic and international impacts and identifies future challenges.


In November 2010, the Measuring National Well-being (MNW) Programme was launched to establish, “an accepted and trusted set of National Statistics, which help people to understand and monitor national well-being”. The Programme took its lead from a report from the Commission on the Measurement for Economic Performance and Social Progress (the Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report). This highlighted the need to look beyond GDP when evaluating progress of society. 

The report reflected a growing international interest in this area including the European Commission’s ‘GDP and beyond’ project and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) global project on ‘measuring the progress of societies’. Other countries with work in this area include: Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) and the Canadian Index of Well-being. These initiatives are based on a common agreement that measures such as GDP are increasingly considered as providing an incomplete picture of the state of the nation and that other economic, environmental and social measures are needed alongside GDP to provide a complete picture of the quality of life and ‘how society is doing’. In his recent speech on Inclusive Capitalism, Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney said that, "prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital" and emphasised the need for "a sense of society".

Three years after the first Programme report, 'Measuring National Well-being: Reflections from the National Statistician' (1.16 Mb Pdf)  was published, this article summarises key outputs from the Programme and how they help to provide a better understanding of the state of the nation. Taking its lead from the Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report, the Programme and this report are structured according to three main areas including:

  • providing a fuller understanding of the economy,

  • enabling a better understanding of society,

  • promoting sustainable development and monitoring the environment for the well-being of future generations.

This article provides a summary of the impacts in terms of policy and international influence and the article concludes with a summary of future challenges and next steps. 

Key points

  • National well-being is more than the state of all individuals well-being. It is also concerned with how national level factors, for example, information about the economy, the environment or governance relate to society as a whole.

  • A more rounded assessment of changes in the economy and their impact on living standards is provided by looking at measures such as GDP per capita and Real Net national Disposable Income (RNNDI) per capita alongside GDP.

  • Better decisions on what affects our quality of life can be made by examining facts based information covering a range of topics, for example, our health and our finances, alongside how people think and feel about individual aspects within these areas and their lives overall.

  • Focusing only on today’s well-being may have an adverse effect on the environment. Understanding current stocks of human, natural, physical and social capital as well as the impact of the economy on the environment is vital for ensuring sustainability for future generations.

  • Substantial progress has been made in embedding the concept of well-being in UK policy and the UK is internationally recognised for its work in this area.

  • The Measuring National Well-being Programme has identified and developed a wide range of evidence in support of existing theories, for example, health being the strongest association with personal well-being; as well as new insights, for example, that expenditure is more important to our personal well-being than income.  More work is needed to further develop and translate evidence into action.

What is national well-being?

There is no agreed definition of national well-being and it is often replaced with terms such as 'progress', 'quality of life' and 'sustainability'. For the Measuring National Well-being Programme, well-being, put simply is about ‘how we are doing’ as individuals, as communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future.

Individual well-being describes how individuals are doing in terms of thoughts and feelings about their lives overall, identified through questions such as how satisfied with your life are you overall. Individual well-being also includes how we are doing and how we feel about individual aspects of our lives such as health, relationships, education and skills, what we do, where we live, our finances, the economy, governance and the environment.  

Community well-being includes individual well-being but should also reflect how well individual well-being is distributed across the community, as well as local factors which may impact on well-being, for example, access to green spaces and strength of and opportunities for community involvement. 

National well-being includes how individual well-being is distributed across society as well as how factors at the national level, for example, decisions about the economy, the environment or governance, which are important but contribute less directly to individual well-being, add up to determine national well-being. National well-being is also concerned with how well current levels of well-being can be sustained into the future or between generations.

National well-being is therefore more than the state of all individual well-being. It is a worthwhile aim to seek to maintain or improve current well-being by finding out what most influences our personal well-being and develop the means to address it, particularly for those with low well-being. But to fully address national well-being, a broader set of activities are needed. For example, an individual’s well-being may not be directly affected by a fall in the stock of the education and skills in the labour market (human capital), but taken to the extreme, if stocks of human capital were to plummet, the future labour market would suffer from a lack of appropriate education and skills and this would have indirect consequences for individuals though the impact on the UK economy. In addition, it may be more useful from a national well-being perspective to consider linkages between different policy areas which may have indirect but nevertheless important downstream impacts on individual well-being. For example, exploring impacts of health policy alongside employment policy may lead to interventions which are beneficial to individual well-being but which were not the primary aim of the exercise.

A Framework for reporting on national well-being

In recognition of the need to look at a broad range of topics to understand national well-being, ONS created a framework consisting of 10 areas or ‘domains’, including areas such as Health, Education and What we do; and 41 headline measures of well-being such as the unemployment rate, satisfaction with our health, and levels of crime. To illustrate the framework, the Programme developed a Well-being Wheel of Measures, which includes all domains, measures and latest data, and is updated every six months. An interactive online version is also available which provides time series charts for each measure and links to underlying data.

The Well-being Wheel has received international praise for the way in which it concentrates a lot of complex information onto one page. Being circular, the Wheel shows that no preference is given to any one domain or measure reflecting the fact that people value things differently.

ONS are currently developing a wider conceptual framework which will include measures of national well-being as well as other relevant existing indicator sets, such as, Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) and those sets in development, such as, the Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The framework will help users understand how the different indicator sets fit together and can be used as a framework for reporting on these areas.

Why is measuring national well-being important?

The Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report showed the need to measure what matters and provide statistics which lead to people being better informed when making decisions. It stated that 'those attempting to guide the economy and our societies are like pilots trying to steer a course without a reliable compass. The decisions they (and we as individual citizens) make depend on what we measure, how good our measurements are and how well our measures are understood'. The report made clear that measuring the progress of society was not about finding a replacement for GDP but to identify a range of measures to help understand the well-being of its members.

The following sections outline how the Measuring National Well-being Programme has addressed the need to better understand the economy, society and environment and how this provides a better understanding of the state of the nation’s well-being.

Providing a fuller understanding of the economy

The Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report highlights the fact that traditional measures of progress such as GDP can increase in times of war and natural disasters - both of which are detrimental to people’s welfare. GDP is therefore not a reliable measure of overall progress - on its own. It also suggested that ‘before going beyond GDP and tackling the more difficult task of measuring well-being, it is worth asking where existing measures of economic performance need improving’.

The report suggested:

  • looking at individual and household perspectives instead of just the national economy.

  • considering distributions across society of income, wealth and consumption to highlight areas less well off.

  • considering wealth as well as income and to capture non-market activities - services that households provide for themselves.

Looking at the economy in this way provides a better understanding of how it impacts people at the individual and household level. This in turn can lead to more informed policy decisions focused on areas most in need.

Identifying existing measures which help describe the economy at individual and household levels

As part of a suite of measures of national well-being, the MNW Programme has included:

  • Real net national income per head – to give a better understanding of material living standards and how well off individuals are compared to the state of the national economy.

  • Median household income – to highlight the economic situation at the household level and take account of payments between sectors, for example, benefits received and taxes paid.

  • Median wealth per household – to give a better understanding of  future sustainability at the household level, for example, having a high income may lead to higher well-being in the short term through being able to satisfy one’s preferences but wealth is considered a better indicator of future sustainability.

  • Distributions such as households with less than 60% of median income after housing costs and UK public sector net debt – to help understand how an apparent rise in national income affects the worst and most well off.

These measures form part of the Economy and Personal Finance ‘domains’ of the 41 ‘headline’ measures of national well-being, which are updated and published every six months. They are commented on in reports such as 'Life in the UK' and in more detail in the Programme’s ‘Economic well-being report’ . The report includes several other measures such as GDP per capita and net domestic product per capita, which are due to be included in the quarterly system of National Accounts in 2014. 

Figure 1 compares Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in recent years with GDP per capita. Figure 1 shows that while GDP has recovered significantly from the low point in 2009, there has been little recovery in GDP per capita as compared with 2008. However, the slow recovery in GDP since 2009 had been matched by an increase in population of roughly the same order.

The Measuring National Well-being: Economic Well-being article (April 2014), from which Figure 1 is taken, also compared GDP per capita with Real Net National Disposable Income (RNNDI) per capita.  It showed that unlike the GDP per capita measure which has been broadly flat since 2009, the RNNDI per capita measure has been continuing to fall gently from £21,140 in 2009 to £20,410 at the end of 2013.

Figure 1: GDP and GDP per capita

United Kingdom

Figure 1: GDP and GDP per capita
Source: Office for National Statistics

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The MNW Programme has shown that using other measures of the economy alongside GDP (such as GDP per capita and RNNDI per capita), provides a different message to looking at GDP alone. In doing so, a more rounded and complete assessment of how changes in the economy impact on living standards is provided.

Developing Household Satellite Accounts

ONS is also updating the Household Satellite Accounts (HHSA) which measure non-market household production in the UK. The HHSA provide a measure of the influence of changing patterns of unpaid work on the economy. This is divided into several principal functions providing housing, transport, nutrition, clothing, laundry services, adult care, child care and voluntary work. In 2013 and 2014, the MNW Programme has published estimates of Informal Childcare in the UK, Informal Adult Care in the UK, Valuing voluntary activity in the UK and Valuing household transport in the UK . The Programme plans to update the remaining sections of the HHSAs in the next 12 months.


Development have been made in providing measures of the economy which supplement GDP and better show issues at the individual and household levels.

Enabling a better understanding of Society

Whilst GDP may capture the overall state of the economy, it does not capture information about an individual’s quality of life. The Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report highlighted that “traffic jams may increase GDP as a result of the increased use of gasoline, but obviously not the quality of life”. The importance of having ‘a sense of society’ was also highlighted by Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney in his recent speech on Inclusive Capitalism.

To enable a better understanding of society, the Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report proposed the need to:

  • understand what matters to people - to ensure the right things are measured and sustained into the future,

  • collect objective information on things which have been collectively agreed to influence a person’s well-being, for example; information about health, education, everyday activities, for example, right to decent jobs and housing, participation in the political process, the social and natural environment in which they live and the factors shaping their personal and economic security,

  • capture subjective information - how people think and feel about their lives, and to report where possible across gender, age, socio-economic groups and others to highlight inequalities in quality of life.

Identifying 'what matters'

The MNW Programme has made understanding what matters to people a central focus for its activities. The Programme began by running a six month national debate in the UK, asking ‘what matters?’. The debate included 175 events around the country and generated 35,000 responses. The findings (407.1 Kb Pdf) and other research were used to determine 41 measures of national well-being across 10 domains, for example, Personal Well-being, Personal Finance and the Natural Environment 

Identifying measures from existing sources

The majority of measures are taken from existing data sources within and outside Government. They include objective measures, such as, crime rates; as well as subjective information, for example, fear of walking alone after dark. The original measures have been consulted upon and revised and will continue to evolve as needs change. They are updated with the latest data every six months (National Well-being Interactive Wheel) and summarised in an annual Life in the UK report. 

Objective versus subjective measures

The 41 measures provide the information to determine ‘how the nation is doing' in areas such as health, education and skills and the money we have in our pockets based on what citizens told us that mattered. By examining fact based information with how people think and feel, a more complete picture is provided than by looking at either type of measure alone. For example, in the 'Life in the UK 2014 report', personal crime rates per thousand fell between 2011/12 and 2012/13 while the percentage of men and women who felt fairly safe walking alone after dark fell. A similar example can be found in the Health domain. Figure 2 shows that while healthy life expectancy has risen over time for males and females, satisfaction with health has been falling since 2008.

Figure 2: Healthy life expectancy at birth and satisfaction with health

United Kingdom

Figure 2: Healthy life expectancy at birth and satisfaction with health

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It is acknowledged that satisfaction with health will be determined by a variety of other factors both health related and non-health related and not simply healthy life expectancy. The measures selected here have been used to demonstrate the need to look at both facts based information as well as how people think and feel in order to more fully understand what is happening.

Using this information, policy makers can target their policies more effectively to improve quality of life. They can also identify more easily the areas where more information is needed. Individuals can also benefit from better information about how different life choices could affect their well-being.

Developing four new measures

Four of the measures were developed specifically by the MNW Programme with subject specialists to capture personal well-being. In 2011, ONS added four questions to its largest household survey, the Annual Population Survey, to capture how people in the UK think and feel about their lives. These questions capture long-term feelings of life satisfaction, the extent to which people feel the things they do in life are worthwhile, and daily experiences of positive and negative feelings such as happiness and anxiety. The data are analysed by a wide range of geographical break-downs, personal characteristics and circumstances in an annual publication, 'Personal Well-being in the UK'.

Looking at the data by age shows clear differences in personal well-being across the age groups. Figure 3, based on data from the Measuring National Well-being: Personal Well-being in the UK 2012/13 report shows that average levels of life satisfaction, a sense that activities were worthwhile and happiness levels were lowest for people aged 45 to 54. Also younger people gave higher average ratings than those in mid-life. Those aged 65 to 79 had significantly higher average ratings than any other age group for both worthwhile and happiness. Looking at anxiety, those in their early thirties to late fifties rated their anxiety levels highest, while younger people rated their anxiety at lower levels than those in mid-life. Those aged 80 and over did not have higher levels of anxiety on average than those aged 65 to 79.

Figure 3: Average personal well-being (1): by age group, 2012/13 (2,3)

United Kingdom

Figure 3: Average personal well-being (1): by age group, 2012/13 (2,3)
Source: Annual Population Survey (APS) - Office for National Statistics


  1. Adults aged 16 and over were asked 'Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?', 'Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?', 'Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?' and 'Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?' where nought is 'not at all' and 10 is 'completely'.
  2. Data from April 2012 to March 2013.
  3. All data weighted. Non-respondents not included.

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Having the evidence supported by other research, that personal well-being may change as we age and have different experiences, responsibilities and circumstances provides valuable information for policy makers to take into account when considering how decisions may affect personal well-being for particular sub- groups of the population.

Analysing influences on well-being

Including the four well-being questions on a large survey has allowed factors most strongly associated with our personal well-being to be analysed. This analysis has given evidence which supports the findings from the national debate that self-assessed health, employment status and relationships are most strongly associated with our personal well-being.

Further work has also looked at how well-being is associated with commuting to work; household income and expenditure; and the place where we live.  The Commuting and Personal Well-being, 2014 article showed how different commuting times and modes of travel are related to personal well-being. The Income, Expenditure and Personal Well-being, 2011/12 article showed that whilst people in households with higher incomes report higher life satisfaction and happiness and lower anxiety (holding other factors fixed), an increase in the proportion of household income from cash benefits such as Housing Benefit and Job Seeker’s Allowance is linked with lower reported life satisfaction, happiness and perceptions in life are worthwhile and higher anxiety. These effects are strongest for men. The same research showed that household expenditure appears to have a stronger relationship than household income with how people rate their life satisfaction, perceptions that what they do in life are worthwhile and happiness.  Looking at these influences in more depth provides a powerful new understanding into what drives our well-being.

The four ONS questions are now being included on a growing number of other surveys, for example, the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the Wealth and Assets survey, Living Costs and Food survey and the English Housing Survey, which provide a further rich source information with which to analyse influences on well-being. A full list of surveys on which the four ONS questions are asked is available online within Personal Well-being: Frequently Asked questions.

Also the Programme recently used the 41 measures, alongside existing work in this area as a basis for proposing indicators which help measure the well-being of children and young people


National well-being is now being measured regularly using a wide variety of existing measures, selected using evidence on what matters to society, as well as new nationally representative measures. This provides more extensive and robust data with which to measure the progress of the nation over and above GDP, and make decisions on those things which affect our quality of life than ever before. 


Promoting sustainable development and monitoring the environment

As well as understanding the nation's current progress and quality of life, we also need to be conscious as to how they can be sustained for the future and between generations. This concerns both the sustainability of the environment as well as stocks of our human, physical, natural and social capital. 

Sustainability refers to an economy’s total stock of capital being maintained over time. The economy’s total capital stock comprises the sum of physical capital (for example, buildings), natural capital (sub-soil assets, woodlands and ecosystems), human capital (education and skills) and social capital (personal relationships, support networks, civic engagement and trust). Capturing stocks in this way helps ensure we are conscious of their current status and their decline or sustainability for future generations. 

Despite emphasis on the environment in recent years, environmental degradation is still a key concern. The Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report makes the point that whilst important, simply focusing on today’s well-being may have an adverse impact on the environment. For example, buying a car may make life for the consumer easier in the short term but may release emissions harmful to the environment when the vehicle is in use. This coupled with more immediate environmental concerns, for example global warming, mean that it is essential that sustainability and the environment are considered within the realm of national well-being.

Valuing and maintaining our stocks

The MNW Programme has developed estimates of stocks of human capital and stocks of natural capital. A discussion paper about what constitutes social capital has also been published.

Figure 4, taken from the Programme’s Human Capital Estimates, 2012, illustrates the effect of the economic downturn on the UK’s employed human capital stock. In the years 2004 to 2007 the value of the UK’s human capital stock increased steadily, at an average of 3.1% per year. Growth in employed human capital slowed into 2008 (0.2%) before falling slightly in 2009 (-0.7%) beginning to reflect the effect of the economic downturn. With falling employment rates and falls in real earnings, 2010 and 2011 saw further falls in the value of the UK’s human capital stock (of 2.0% and 2.8% respectively). Following these substantial falls in 2010 and 2011, the value of the UK’s human capital stock began to stabilise in 2012. In 2012 the value of employed human capital was £17.15 trillion. This is a fall of £68 billion from £17.22 trillion in 2011. Full human capital, which also includes the unemployed, followed a similar pattern as the employed human capital. However, full human capital declined less in the recent years reflecting the impact of unemployment on the employed human capital estimates.

Figure 4: Employed and Full Human Capital (1,2,3)

United Kingdom

Figure 4: Employed and Full Human Capital (1,2,3)
Source: Office for National Statistics


  1. Figures in 2012 prices.
  2. Labour productivity growth rate = 2%.
  3. Discount rate = 3.5%

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There is much development work still to do, but by providing such estimates of these and other stocks, the UK has a benchmark with which to determine the need for policy intervention or monitor the impact of future activities.

Measuring the impact of the economy on our environment

The Programme has published and will continue to develop a set of Environmental Accounts. With the National Accounts, Environmental Accounts help to determine the impact of the economy on the environment by looking at environmental assets (such as, oil & gas reserves, woodlands), how they are used (such as energy, material flows) and the pressure they place on the natural environment (such as, from emissions and waste). They also provide information on environment related taxes.

Figure 5 shows the decline in total energy consumption of fossil fuels since 2005. The chart shows energy consumed from fossil fuels is still dominant but in 2008 energy consumption from fossil fuels dramatically declined. From 2009 a gradual increase in energy consumption from other sources occurred, particularly in renewable and waste sources. Energy consumed within the UK from renewable sources was 1.1% in 2004 and 4.2% in 2012.

Figure 5: Energy consumption of primary fuels and equivalents: by source

United Kingdom

Figure 5: Energy consumption of primary fuels and equivalents: by source


  1. Renewable and waste sources includes hydroelectric power, solar photovoltaic, geothermal aquifers, energy from wind, wave and tide, wood, charcoal, straw, liquid biofuels, biogas from anaerobic digestion, bioethanol and biodiesel, biomass combustion, sewage gas, landfill gas, poultry litter and municipal solid waste.

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Such information adds to the evidence, which is used to consider decisions on what actions need to be taken and in what areas to ensure a more sustainable future. Work has already led to the identification of the need for more detailed information about companies' products, investments and processes which can be considered ‘low carbon’. This helps to inform policy strategies to facilitate more ‘green growth’.

The MNW Programme includes a natural environment domain, which includes measures such as Green house gas emissions; protected areas; energy consumed from renewable resources and household waste recycled.

Sustainable Development Indicators

In addition, the MNW Programme is now responsible for providing annual updates to the sustainable development indicators (SDIs), which used to be the responsibility of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). ONS are also coordinating work across the Government Statistical Service (GSS) to lead the UK’s statistical input to the UN Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will replace the Millennium Development Goals and consider essential requirements of sustainable development as being: to promote poverty eradication, change unsustainable and promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production and protect and manage the natural resource base of economic and social development.

The MNW Programme is developing a framework to explain how SDIs, measures of national well-being and Post 2015 SDGs fit together.

Impacts of the Measuring National Well-being Programme

The impacts of the MNW Programme are summarised in terms of UK policy, international influence and emerging impacts outside Government.

UK policy

Measuring national well-being is a long term development programme. Information and understanding of well-being from the Programme could help to focus policy activities on what is needed, which is crucial in times of limited resource. It is too early to expect to have examples of major policy decisions which are affected by well-being research but the foundations are very much in place.

Well-being is now considered by every major Government department with activities including adding subjective well-being questions into policy surveys to further explore relationships within their policy areas. Examples of this are, the well-being of victims of crimes, housing quality, adult learning, sport culture and health.

Also, there are several examples of legislation that have been or will be introduced with a strong focus on well-being. Such legislation highlights the approach for seizing opportunities for improving existing initiatives through the consideration of well-being, as opposed to creating legislation specifically targeted at well-being. Examples include the following:

  • Care Bill, where Part 1 aims to modernise and reform current social care law so that whenever a local authority makes a decision about an adult, they must promote that adult’s well-being.

  • Right to Request Flexible Working, which has been extended from 30th June 2014 so that all employees, not just those with children or caring responsibilities, are better able to balance their work and life.

The Queen’s Speech also announced a Serious Crime Bill which will help protect the most vulnerable children by making sure that child cruelty includes emotional as well as physical harm. Also there is a Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill which will remove legal barriers and disincentives to ‘good deeds’ to promote selfless behaviour.

More specific examples of the application of quality of life and well-being to UK policy can be considered in terms of:

  • policy need

  • policy appraisal

  • policy evaluation

Policy need

Areas where quality of life questions can be and are starting to be considered in UK policy include, "what do we need to do, where, and for which sub groups?"

Subjective measures of well-being used with objective measures can help with identifying need and targeting of policies. For example, when we look at how scores for life satisfaction and feeling that life is worthwhile, we can see they vary by objective measures such as age (see Figure 3), employment status, health and ethnic group. These conclusions can help to target areas or sub groups of the population most in need.

In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) looked at the well-being of those searching for a job. The study, conducted in 2012 by NatCen Social Research on behalf of DWP found that the unemployed have the highest proportion of low well-being, most notable at the start of a claim, and that this low well-being impacts on their ability to obtain a job through low interview confidence. The study has led to questions as to whether there is a role for mental health intervention to overcome these barriers to getting a job.

Policy appraisal

Using well-being and impacts on quality of life as a means to assess whether a policy should be granted approval is another way in which quality of life considerations are starting to be used in UK policy.

In 2011, the Government published a Green Book discussion paper on how to use subjective well-being to inform cost-benefit analysis and to monetise non-market goods and services. Social cost-benefit analysis aims to show the full social costs and full social benefits of policies in monetary terms. The Green Book is the UK Government guidance on how to appraise proposals before committing funds to a policy. The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) have used the guidance to place a value on participating in sport once a week. This is equivalent to £11,000 increase in annual income, with a value on frequent volunteering of £13,500.

Also, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) now ensures wider social impacts are included in business cases for major transport schemes. This helps to find adverse impacts and mitigation options for the schemes as well as recognise social benefits that could be brought. DfT has also released an interactive tool based on the ONS well-being wheel to help policy makers appraise transport investment decisions based on how they will impact the domains of national well-being.

Policy evaluation

The impact of policies is increasingly being evaluated in subjective well-being terms allowing us to capture a better understanding of their effect on individuals.

The UK National Citizenship Service (NCS) is one of the Government’s most important initiatives for building a bigger, stronger society. The programme is a voluntary eight week summer programme in which young people (aged 16 and over) come together to design and carry out a social action project in their local area. In 2011, a survey was conducted among NCS participants as well as a control group of 16-year-olds before and after the service. The survey asked the four ONS questions of subjective well-being to measure the impact of the programme. Table 1 shows the findings.

Table 1: Well-being before and after National Citizen Service

United Kingdom (Percentages)

  Baseline NCS Baseline control Follow-up NCS Follow-up control
High satisfaction with your life  64 61 79 73
High level of happiness felt yesterday  66 67 72 69
Feel things you do in life are worthwhile  65 64 79 73
Low levels of anxiety felt yesterday  45 56 49 51
Bases (numbers) 1612 1571   1625 1580
Source: NatCen et al, 2011. Evaluation of National Citizen Service: Findings from the evaluation of the 2012 summer and autumn NCS programmes

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The table shows that well-being clearly increased among NCS participants compared with the control group. Qualitative research also highlighted feelings of pride, achievement, overcoming fears and making a difference to others among participants.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) are also running a Troubled Families Programme which will measure the well-being of families (adults and children) to assess improvements following their participation. The research will include national measures and the final report is due in late 2015.

Other initiatives

A full summary of how well-being research is being used across the Government is available in the evidence submitted by the Cabinet Office to the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in 2013. Current examples are mostly around the impact on personal well-being of selected activities.

There is more work to do to make sure that policies reflect the full range of domains of well-being and 'what matters'. The final report from the EAC showed the need for policy makers to be more active in creating policies based on well-being. they stated that 'well-being considerations should increasingly drive policy-making, including "nudge" programmes, as the extent and understanding of well-being data is increased. The so far ‘experimental’ nature of the data, and current gaps in understanding of cause and effect, has prompted Government caution. The Government should begin using the already available data to "wellbeing-proof" existing policy proposals, and set out a clear plan for how and in what circumstances the data should start to be used proactively to identify new policies'.

A Commission on well-being and policy has also been established by the Legatum Institute, led by Lord Gus O’ Donnell, former Head of the Civil Service. The commission aims to advance the policy debate on well-being. A recently published report, ‘Well-being and policy' outlines the usefulness of well-being as a measure of progress in society and aims to give policy makers a greater understanding of how well-being data can be used to improve public policy and advance prosperity.  The Government is currently considering its response to this report.

International influence

UK work on measuring national well-being, often used synonymously with terms such as ‘progress’ or ‘GDP and beyond’ is highly regarded internationally. This is shown through ONS's membership of several international working groups and their invitations to provide methodological guidance for several international handbooks. A summary of these is provided below. A more comprehensive report on the international influence of the MNW Programme will be published in the autumn.

Personal Well-being

Measuring personal well-being was a recommendation of the Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi report. The UK is recognised as an international leader in this area and is the only country to directly measure personal well-being.  In recognition of advances made, ONS were key contributors to ‘OECD guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being’. 

Human Capital

The stock of our human capital provides important information to help make sure our stocks can be monitored and sustained for the future. Through the MNW Programme, ONS is involved in the OECD and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) international expert groups. ONS is currently drafting guidance on measurement for inclusion in the UNECE guidelines on measuring human capital.

Economic Well-being

ONS have drafted an economic well-being chapter for the OECD framework for statistics on the distribution of household income, consumption and wealth. This is helping to lead the way for an internationally agreed framework. The UK approach has also been referenced as best practice in OECD guidelines on wealth statistics.

Environmental Accounts

Working closely with the UN Statistical Development Division, ONS have been instrumental in developing the System of European Environmental Accounts (SEEA). The UK is one of the leading countries in using the SEEA Framework and developed the UK Environmental Accounts in line with it.

Natural Capital

Natural Capital Accounts within the UK Environmental Accounts are currently being developed (with Defra, Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the UK Natural Capital Committee) as part of the natural capital accounting roadmap published by ONS in December 2012. In June 2013, the MNW Programme published a number of experimental statistics on natural capital that were in line with the SEEA Central Framework.

SEEA Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (EEA) is not an international standard but is considered the best guidance to develop ecosystem accounts. The UK is one of the leading countries in developing the ecosystem accounts by implementing SEEA EEA. The ONS roadmap has a major focus on developing ecosystem accounts. In June 2013, the MNW Programme published experimental statistics on woodland ecosystem accounts (273.5 Kb Pdf) in line with the SEEA EEA guidelines. Working with the UN, six method papers for measuring natural capital have also been drafted and incorporated in the UN and World Bank libraries.

Impact outside Government

Examples where well-being is recognised outside Government are also growing. Housing developer Berkeley Homes, have recognised the importance of well-being in its drive to ‘make sustainable places’ and understanding what makes a place thrive and function as a community, now and in the future, as opposed to just house building. It outlines its approach as creating '…high quality, sustainable places where people choose to live, work and spend their time. These will be places that directly encourage people's well-being and quality of life and offer them a space and a base from which to lead safe and fulfilling lives'.

In addition, the British Red Cross has identified increased well-being as an intended outcome for people using  refugee services. In a pilot study, the British Red Cross has used all five MNW measures from the MNW Personal Well-being domain (four ONS questions and the population and mental well-being measure which uses the Warwick and Edinburgh Mental well-being (WEMWbs) form questionnaire) to capture the well-being of refugees at the beginning and end of the support period. Through measuring change in the refugee's well-being, the British Red Cross aim to:

  • better understand emotional as well as practical needs of those that it helps,

  • improve the design of its services to better meet user needs, and 

  • be better equipped to raise awareness of well-being issues among specific vulnerable groups and respond to growing interest in well-being from its commissioners and funders.



The MNW Programme has delivered a range of information and insights on national well-being. A full list of Programme outputs is provided at the end of this report. Ongoing challenges are summarised below. 

Index of measures or single headline measure?

There is still much appeal and debate for national well-being to be summarised as one number, in the same way as GDP. But as the recent report from the Environmental Audit Committee and Natural Capital Committee stated, 'it runs the risk of not being accepted by those who do not agree the weightings given to particular components of well-being. Such a move should not be contemplated until a track-record has been built up and a general consensus and acceptance secured on the appropriate component measures of well-being'.This reflects the ONS viewpoint that whilst the ease of a single number is recognised, one number would hide too much detail, which is needed to show where interventions are needed. It would also hide changes in its makeup, for example, a positive change in one area could be offset by a negative change in another and leave the overall number the same. Without the detail of the components which make up the overall number, we cannot get a true reflection of ‘how we’re doing’ and where intervention may be needed. 

Measuring change in well-being

The MNW Programme is developing measures of change in well-being. It is recognised that in order to monitor well-being, some measure of how things are changing, at an individual as well as overall level would be helpful. At the moment, the interactive Well-being Wheel provides time series charts to give users an overall sense of change over time. The challenge is to develop a solid and consistent methodology for measuring and presenting change across 41 measures taken from over 20 different sources. Providing measurements of change remains a priority for the MNW Programme and work is currently underway across the Government Statistical Service (GSS) to address this.

Further understanding of what affects well-being and why

Much of the focus so far has been on getting a better understanding of what matters and what influences well-being. For example, regression analysis of the four ONS questions against other data collected via the Annual Population Survey showed that factors such as our self assessed health, relationships and employment status are most strongly associated with well-being. More recent analysis highlighted the differences income and expenditure have on our well-being as well as differences in these effects for men and women. The Programme has provided a lot of information on ‘what’ influences our well-being and will continue to add to this body of evidence. It will also provide more work on ‘why’ these things appear to affect our well-being more than others.

Sub group analysis

Part of the answer may lie in providing and analysing data on sub groups, whether sub UK areas or sub groups of the population such as gender, ethnic group or age. Part of the challenge in this area is data availability. The MNW Programme has already given proposed measures of well-being of children and young people and will continue to develop work in this area. It is also considering how measures of national well-being, currently defined for the UK level can be identified at the sub regional level.  

Turning evidence into action

The biggest challenge is to turn the evidence on well-being into action, so that policies truly reflect our quality of life; more consideration is given to economic impacts at the individual and household level (rather than just economy wide) and future sustainability of our human and natural capital and the impact of the economy on the environment is measured.  ONS will continue to work with stakeholders across Government and beyond to make this happen.


Measuring national well-being is a long term development programme. In its first three years, the Programme has:

  • asked the nation, ‘what matters’ and started a conversation to make sure measures continue to reflect what matters, through regular open consultations;

  • started to uncover, in both a quantitative and qualitative way, answers to the question ‘what’ affects our well-being, with more work needed to understand ‘why’;

  • undertaken numerous development activities, for example, developing the system of environmental accounts and how to measure human capital;

  • provided a wealth of analysis which has both provided evidence in support of existing theories, such as, health being the strongest association with personal well-being; as well as given new insights, for example, that expenditure is more important to our personal well-being than income; 

  • using largely existing sources of information, provided a large quantity of information which has the capacity to give a better understanding of the economy and it's impacts on people and households; a better understanding of the things which impact on our quality of life and a clearer picture of our capital stocks in terms of our education and skills and the environment to make sure the UK is not heading towards an unsustainable future.

Working with people across Government and beyond, we have made great progress has been made in emphasising the concept of well-being in UK policy and the UK is considered as being among the world leaders in this increasingly important area. Engagement with a broad range of users has provided a ‘mandate’ for measures of national well-being. They are rooted in what people have said is important to their lives, and help to link policy makers and their decisions to what really matters. If the main purpose of Government is to support the social and economic well-being of citizens then this framework is an essential aid to decision making.

There is still a need to ensure that this large amount of evidence, information and understanding of well-being which will continue to grow - is not wasted. The Programme has started to highlight the potential for using economic, environmental and social measures, alongside traditional measures of progress such as GDP, to provide a wider lens on how society is doing. The information provided has the ability to create real change in the way problems are identified and tackled. There is a need to make sure that the information is not only provided but can be and is interpreted and used by policy makers and others. It is recognised that there is still a need to translate the information and understanding in more meaningful ways.



Background notes

  1. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting or from the Media Relations Office email:

List of publications from Measuring National Well-being Programme

Outputs are listed in date order with the most recent at the top. The latest articles and reports are available at Measuring National Well-being


Sustainable Development Indicators, July 2014

Household Satellite Accounts - Valuing household transport in the UK, 2010

UK Environmental Accounts, 2014

Measuring National Well-being - European Comparisons, 2014

Measuring National Well-being - Income, Expenditure and Personal Well-being, 2011/12

Measuring National Well-being - Economic Well-being

Measuring National Well-being - Life in the UK, 2014

National Well-being Measures, March 2014

Measuring National Well-being - Children's Well-being, 2014 

Measuring National Well-being, Young People's Well-being, 2014

Measuring National Well-being - Governance, 2014

Measuring National Well-being, Commuting and Personal Well-being, 2014 


Household Satellite Accounts - Valuing Volunteering in the UK

Human Capital Estimates, 2012

Personal well-being across the UK, 2012/13

Measuring National Well-being Domains and Measures, September 2013

Measuring National Well-being - What we do

Personal well-being in the UK, 2012/13

Household Satellite Accounts, Valuing Informal Adult care in the UK

UK Environmental Accounts, 2013

Measuring National Well-being - Health, 2013 

Self-reported financial situation, 2013

What matters most to personal well-being

Measuring National Well-being Domains and Measures, May 2013

The Economy - International Comparisons

Differences in well-being by ethnicity

Measuring National Well-being - Older people and loneliness, 2013

Measuring National Well-being - Older people's leisure time and volunteering, 2013

Measuring National Well-being - Older People’s Neighbourhoods, 2013

Household Satellite Accounts, Valuing Informal Childcare in the UK

Personal Well-being Survey User Guide: 2012-2013 Dataset

Towards Wealth Accounting - Natural Capital within Comprehensive Wealth

Measuring UK Woodlands Area and Timber Resources

Measuring the UK Woodlands Ecosystem

Monetary Valuation of UK Timber Resources

Land Use in the UK

Monetary valuation of UK continental shelf oil and gas reserves

Updated estimates of UK Resource Use using Raw Material Equivalents

Development of Water Statistics and Water Accounts in the UK

Review of available sources and measures for children and young people's well-being


Individual responses to the consultation on accounting for the value of the nature in the UK

Roadmap on Natural Capital accounting

Measuring National Well-being - Life in the UK 2012

National Well-being wheel of measures poster version

Measuring National Well-being - The Natural Environment

Measuring National Well-being - Governance, 2012

Measuring National Well-being - Children's well-being, 2012

Measuring National Well-being - The Economy

Measuring National Well-being - Measuring young people's well-being, 2012

Measuring National Well-being - Personal finance

Measuring National Well-being - summary of proposed domains and measures

Measuring National Well-being - health

Measuring National Well-being - where we live

First Annual ONS Experimental Subjective Well-being Results - 24 July 2012 

Measuring National Well-being - Education and Skills

UK Environmental Accounts,  2012

The effects of taxes and benefits on household income 2010/11

Comparisons of UK and EU at risk Poverty Rates 2005-2010

How the economy impacts on the environment, World Environment Day 2012

Measuring national well-being - Households and families, 2012

Quarterly Household Release, Q4 2011

Measuring National Well-being - what we do, 2012

Initial findings from the consultation on proposed domains and measures of national well-being

Analysis of experimental subjective well-being data from the Annual Population Survey, April - September 2011

Subjective well-being survey user guide

Measuring National Well-being - Our relationships

Is there more to life than GDP and happiness?

Measuring National Well-being - Population

Developments in Environmental Protection Expenditure Accounts

New approaches to the measurement of Quality of Life

Human Capital - Methodology paper

Human Capital consultation response

Measuring National Well-being - the Contribution of Longitudinal Studies

Subjective Well-being Survey User Guide

User guidance for ONS's subjective well-being experimental dataset released July 2012, based on Annual Population Survey information April 2011 to March 2012.

Report on the Consultation on Proposed Domains and Measures

Consultation on proposed domains and measures of national well-being: responses received

2010 and 2011

Human Capital estimates - 2010

Initial investigation into Subjective Well-being data from the ONS Opinions Survey

Measuring National Well-being - Discussion paper on domains and measures

Time-Use Surveys and the Measurement of National Well-Being

Measuring what Matters: National Statistician's Reflections on the National Debate on Measuring National Well-being

Findings from the National well-being debate

Measuring subjective well-being

Developing a framework for understanding and measuring national well-being

Measuring children's and young people's well-being

Measuring economic well-being

Comparing measures of subjective well-being and the views about the role they should play in policy.

Measuring Subjective Well-being for Public Policy

There's more to life than GDP but how can we measure it?

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