Is there more to well-being than economics?

The Office of National Statistics published the findings of its national survey into well-being this week. The report is the result of 175 events across the country, attended by 2,500 people, as well as emails, postcards, tweets and blog comments, to try and find out what really matters to the English and Welsh public. The findings are not exactly earth-shattering: apparently what really matters to us is health, contact with family and friends, relations with our spouse and partner, job satisfaction and economic security, and the environment.

But let’s dig a bit deeper to see if we can find out what really matters.

One problem with the report, of course, is that it’s the product of a rather haphazard method of canvassing public opinion. In a public debate, you’re going to have all kinds of opinions expressed, and it is some person’s job to decide if the opinion is worth noting, and if so, how. It would be good to be able to see the actual responses behind the report – after all, they’re of historical interest, as they have now led to an official national definition of well-being which will in turn become the goal of our entire society – but the ONS tells me that alas they’re not available.

This means that, inevitably, there is a large dose of mediation or subjectivity from the ONS. It is not simply reflecting back the public’s opinions, rather it is, inevitably, filtering those responses, picking out themes and shaping them into a narrative. So this is far more of a subjective exercise than, say, measuring GDP. The ONS is, in effect, getting into the business of selecting what values are important for us. This is quite an extension of its job remit.

For example, the report notes that “there were considerably more contributions concerning belief or religion, in particular Christianity, than we had expected”. If that’s the case, why wasn’t ‘religion’ put as one of the things that really matters to people? Presumably because ONS staff did not deem it appropriate to measure our religiosity (and, by implication, for government policies to encourage religiosity). But the consequence is that we end up with an official definition of well-being that leaves out religious belief – despite the fact that many people appeared to say it really mattered to them.

And it’s telling that the ONS should equate religion with belief – as if some people hold these rather quaint things called ‘beliefs’, while the social scientist, naturally, relies on the empirical evidence and objective data. Yet when Aileen Simkins of the ONS says, on Radio 4, that any national measure of well-being has “got to include equality…it’s got to include sustainability”, one might ask ‘why does it got to?’ Is she not also asserting moral beliefs or dogma? They happen to be beliefs that I share, but nonetheless, such assertions are dogmatic rather than scientific or objective.

The ONS insists that one of the most important things to the public is ‘the environment’. It thinks that measuring national well-being might help our society to avert the ‘looming environmental crisis’. But actually, the report admits that most of the answers related to the environment related to concern about local green spaces, rather than concern about climate change. ‘The environment’ is rather a grand term for what appears to be the public’s fondness for parks.

Nonetheless, ONS staff say that any measure of national well-being has ‘got to include sustainability’, when actually, and unfortunately, environmental sustainability in a wider sense does not seem to matter to the majority of people. So the ONS is making a value judgement. I happen to think it’s a good value judgement – but still, the ONS is making moral judgements, rather than objectively measuring public sentiments. Is it the job of the ONS to make moral judgements about what is good for us?

The 27 page report has large quotes on every page. The quotes are unattributed, but presumably are from the ONS-organized debates. And they clearly give the report a certain angle. On the first page, for example, appears the quote: “I think well-being is related to having a fair distribution of wealth, greater social mobility and being able to slow the pace of life.” Why was this quote, out of all the opinions expressed, given such a prominent position in the report? Who chose it, and why?

All the quotes in the report reflect a general philosophy that there is more to life than money and possessions. However, we also read in the report that young people said that what really mattered to them were ‘clothes, make up, alcohol and fast food’. So what the ONS is actually presenting is, on the whole, an older person’s philosophy of well-being. To be precise, it’s presenting us with an older liberal‘s view of well-being. It says ‘all the age groups highlighted the importance of equality and fairness’. Really? Did young children really say that what mattered to them was equality? I’d be surprised if anyone under the age of 10 could even spell equality. I suspect that the ONS staff’s own moral beliefs are being presented as universal.

The report balanced responses from the general public with responses from an advisory committe. If you look at the advisory committee, almost all its members are either economists, statisticians or bureaucrats (a few are businessmen). There’s not a single priest, rabbi, imam, philosopher, historian, novelist or artist – no one from the Humanities, in other words. These are precisely the people who might question the ability of social science to quantify how meaningful or flourishing a life is with its questionnaires and ten-point scales. It shows a startling confidence in social science, that in trying to answer the millennia-old question ‘what is well-being?’, the ONS should see fit only to consult other economists and social scientists. When did economists suddenly become experts in the meaning of life?

What the initiative to measure national well-being shows is an incredible optimism in statistics and economics, and their ability to quantify not just our most intimate feelings, but even the objective quality and value of our lives. And what seems strange to me is that we should retain this incredible optimism in social science when we’re still in the middle of the Credit Crunch – a crisis caused by an excessive faith in the accuracy and objectivity of social science. Rather than pause to wonder if perhaps we have relied too much on social science and its ability to guide us to positive outcomes, instead we rush to give even more power to economists and social scientists.

Next Spring, the Economic and Social Research Council is holding a conference on measuring well-being. I really hope they don’t confine the conversation to economists and social scientists. Because there is a very real danger that we will end up with an official definition of General Well-Being that is just as narrow and reductive as GDP.

[Picture by Jesus Solana from Wiki Commons. For more articles on this topic, go to]

2 thoughts on “Is there more to well-being than economics?

  1. Thanks for reading and astutely dissecting this ONS report for the blog, Jules – I vote for you (and me) to be added to the advisory committee and to make them all read Seneca and Marcus Aurelius….

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