Measuring our progress

The power of wellbeing

For nearly a decade, the Centre for Well-being at nef has been calling for governments to measure people’s well-being. We have made the case, repeatedly, that the dominant understanding of progress’ as synonymous with economic growth is limited and damaging, and that what really matters – and therefore what should be measured and what should guide policy – is people’s well-being.

We have called for recognition that the economy is a means to an end; not something to be valued in itself but significant insofar as it contributes to producing good (happy, healthy, fulfilled) lives in an equitable and socially just way, without placing unsustainable pressure on the Earth’s resources. We have gone further, calling for recognition that a focus on well-being is in fact vital to sustainability – that it is only through moving away from the harmful, carbon-intensive activities inherent in the dominant model of progress that society has a hope of sustaining itself and the planet.6 In particular, we have argued that what is absent from dominant understandings and measurements of progress – even those that look beyond GDP to important areas such as health and education – is a concern with how people feel about and experience their lives.

In November 2010 the British Prime Minister announced his plans to measure well-being in the UK, requesting that the ONS take the lead in organising a national debate on measuring progress (what it has called national well-being’) and in the development of appropriate measures. In response to this, the ONS has set out two distinct programmes of work. First, it has initiated the national debate concerning what matters most in people’s lives, encouraging input from organisations, businesses, and central and local government as well as from individuals. This phase of the debate is set to run until April 2011 and will lead to the development of a set of measures that covers economic performance, environmental and sustainability issues and people’s well-being. Secondly, it has begun technical work to develop a range of subjective well-being indicators to be included in the Integrated Household Survey (IHS), including measurements of happiness, life satisfaction and purpose in life.

At nef we have broadly welcomed these moves, whilst noting the importance of ensuring that the new indicators are fit for purpose, i.e. sufficiently wide-ranging to provide detailed, nuanced information that is useful for the business of policy-making and influencing political decisions. Now that the national debate concerning well-being is under way, the related tasks of determining what should be measured in its name, how it is most usefully conceptualised and how it can best guide policy, press upon us. This report is our contribution to this debate.

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