Well-being: All in the eye of the beholder?

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Guest blog post by Carrie Exton, a policy analyst at the OECD.

The OECD Better Life Initiative is all about measuring well-being and the progress of societies. You might well wonder how anyone would go about such a gargantuan task. Surely, different people have different views about what it means to live well? How can anyone measure something so ineffable? Isn’t it all just a bit… subjective? The word well-being certainly seems open to interpretation, and societal progress might also be viewed as a matter of opinion. So the notion that someone else, be that a government, a think-tank or a charity, might want to define and measure your well-being can seem like a pretty daft exercise at best, and perhaps a rather sinister one at worst.

So why is it important to collect data about well-being, and how can we ever hope to describe such a slippery concept?

The OECD’s interest in measuring people’s well-being is largely about improving the evidence-base available for policy-makers. To understand whether policies are working, and to hold governments to account, it is important to measure whether life is getting better – and for whom. There is fairly widespread agreement that “better lives” means more than just GDP growth, but how much more has remained a topic of fierce debate. How the benefits of economic growth are distributed in society is also a critical issue. The OECD has been using the word well-being as an umbrella term, encompassing a range of different individual and household-level outcomes that policy-makers might want to consider when trying to measure progress, beyond GDP.

Measuring well-being does require us to be explicit about the kind of outcomes that we value. This can be uncomfortable territory. Economists in particular often prefer to observe people’s spending patterns in markets to help them understand what people want in life. But debates about the outcomes that we value are nonetheless essential for public policy. The role of government is often cast as “correcting” areas where markets fail – which requires a good understanding of what you’d like markets to be delivering in the first place. Governments are also often tasked with making decisions about things that money alone simply cannot buy, ranging from people’s health through to their safety and security. Having better evidence about well-being can make discussions about what governments are aiming for, and whether they are achieving it, a more transparent debate.

Although values and norms necessarily play a role in how well-being is defined, things can get a bit more concrete when we start to talk about measurement. In particular, there is an emerging consensus that several objective outcomes contribute towards people’s well-being, and should therefore be included in measurement efforts: things like health, education, income, jobs, housing, the environment, governance, and personal safety. The importance of “softer” outcomes, such as social connections, work and life balance, and subjective well-being (i.e. people’s own feelings and experiences of life) is also increasingly recognised.

The OECD framework for measuring well-being builds on a body of literature and a wide range of international examples, focusing on areas where existing frameworks align. Reducing well-being to a complex set of numbers might seem like a blunt tool for public policy, but defining a country’s progress in terms of GDP alone is surely a lacklustre alternative. The national-level data compiled by the OECD also seeks to complement rather than supplant the more detailed information that countries collect at the regional level, and the richer and more qualitative evidence available at a more grass-roots and community level.

Does this mean that with all the evidence and data being collected, the OECD can tell you how to maximise your own well-being? Well, no. At the moment, what we have is more like a list of ingredients for well-being, rather than a recipe for combining them. Of course, there can be many different ways to find well-being, and both individuals and governments have to make choices about which recipe they want to follow. Nonetheless, it seems that many well-being recipes share a common set of basic ingredients. The OECD is trying to measure those ingredients, and describe how people’s access to them varies in different countries, and across different groups in society. For those who want to know more, How’s Life?  and the Better Life Index are good places to start.


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