A measure of happiness

For the past 60 years wellbeing has been measured by GDP but it is now recognised that a full picture of national wellbeing needs wider measures and the ONS is leading the search

As part of her consultation on the wider measures of national wellbeing, Jil Matheson, the national statistician, also launched a national debate on the issue in late 2010.

The debate continues until 15 April and is the first stage in the development of wider measures, to supplement GDP and other measures of economic welfare. There is increasing interest in these wider measures, particularly stimulated by the publication in 2009 of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report, commissioned by President Sarkozy.

To support the UK debate, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is working with organisations around the country, to hold events for their members and, in particular, to involve the public. Events are being scheduled from Teeside to Truro and all will be advertised, including on the ONS wellbeing website.

Much of the debate is of course being conducted online. The ONS website has an online questionnaire and will have a more interactive read and comment space. The ONS has also started tweeting.

Why the interest in national wellbeing? For the last 60 years, progress has mainly been assessed using economic measures such as growth in GDP. But it is now recognised that a full picture of how a country is doing – national wellbeing – cannot be understood by looking at GDP alone. The new measures of national wellbeing are likely to include measures of economic performance, social progress and impact on the environment.

One of the reasons for holding the debate is to be clearer about the requirements across the UK for wider measures. This will connect with action by government departments to ensure policies aim to improve wellbeing. But new statistical measures must be suitable for wide public interest, not tied to specific government policies.

ONS has identified a number of ways of going beyond GDP. Extensions to the national accounts have been proposed to produce additional measures of welfare. Another approach is to build indicator sets.

The Stiglitz report takes the view that all these approaches, as well as measures of subjective wellbeing, can contribute to wider measures of national wellbeing. ONS is now adding subjective wellbeing questions to its household surveys, drawing on established academic research.

There is also a wide range of existing statistical data and analysis relevant to measuring national wellbeing. Social Trends has been published for forty years. The Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) published annually by Defra also provide a large set of indicators, increasingly directed towards "measuring progress".

Looking at the first 2,000 responses to the ONS online survey, what matters to people most is: job and economic security; friends and relatives; health. These three categories were each ticked by 88% of respondents. But that is only the start of the debate.

What matters to you, and how should we measure it as part of the assessment of national well-being? Do respond to the ONS websites above, look out for events around the country, or contact us at nationalwell-being@ons.gov.uk.

Paul Allin is director of social and economic micro-analysis, Office for National Statistics

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