Category: learn

Related research

The development of our proposal for National Accounts of Well-being has been informed by nef‘s wider work on well-being, and by related initiatives internationally. Find out more through the links below.

nef‘s related work

  • The research programme at nef‘s centre for well-being .
  • Our Happy Planet Index which combines data on well-being and environmental impact to measure the environmental efficiency with which people live long and happy lives.
  • The evidence-based five ways to well-being which help promote well-being in daily life.
  • Tools developed by nef‘s consulting arm to help organisations measure their employees’ well-being at work and organisational well-being.

Research using European Social Survey well-being data

  • A paper by the design team of the ESS well-being module, led by Professor Felicia A. Huppertand Nic Marks of nef‘s centre for well-being, which describes the design of and preliminary findings from the module.
  • A paper by nef researchers which uses European Social Survey data to examine the relationship between people’s values and their well-being – download a PDF.
  • A paper by researchers at University College Dublin using the ESS data to examine the distribution of well-being in Ireland.

How governments will use National Accounts of Well-being

Our proposal to measure National Accounts of Well-being intends ultimately to shift the goalposts for what nations regard as success. The aim is to bring about change in how societies shape the lives of their citizens. If they are to be effective, National Accounts of Well-being therefore need to influence the design of policy made by international, national and local governments.

Governments planning to implement National Accounts of Well-being will need to consider both the broader context within which the national accounts framework will sit, as well as the ways in which National Accounts of Well-being will be used in the policy-making process.

Growing momentum

nef’s call for governments to measure National Accounts of Well-being is just the latest development in a burgeoning international movement questioning the utility of economic indicators and exploring what it might mean to capture true measures of well-being, not simply material wealth. Leading well-being experts on both sides of the Atlantic have called for well-being indicators to be given much more prominence in policy-making. International survey data show that citizens overwhelmingly support the idea that health, social and environmental statistics should be used to measure national progress, and in the UK 81 per cent of people were found to support the idea that the government’s prime objective should be the ‘greatest happiness’ rather than the ‘greatest wealth’.

Well-being measures have also started to play an ever-more prominent role in the initiatives of government and policy-makers. In the UK, a number of government departments have begun to describe the goal of promoting well-being among their key aims and to include well-being indicators within the data they collect and report on. Both the Conservative Party and the Office for National Statistics have published papers around the idea that well-being indicators could be used as national progress measures. Internationally, the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is spearheading a global agenda on Measuring the Progress of Societies in ways which go ‘beyond GDP’, and in 2008 the French President Nicolas Sarkozy recruited Nobel prize-winning economists to form a commission looking at new ways to measure both economic performance and social progress.

Click the image above to view a timeline showing the growing importance of well-being in UK and international policy over the last decade.

Measuring well-being

As with any formal accounting task, developing National Accounts of Well-being requires answers to core questions about how the concept of well-being can be precisely defined and measured. What aspects of well-being should any new national accounts comprise? How might these aspects be put into practice when well-being measures are developed? Should the different component data be brought together into a single index, and if so, how?

The well-being indicators and data presented here come from the first working model for National Accounts of Well-being which governments can use to measure the well-being of their citizens. It was devised using data from the award-winning cross-national European Social Survey. In 2006/2007, the survey included a detailed module of 50 well-being questions, designed by the University of Cambridge, nef and other partners. This is the most comprehensive and detailed international survey of well-being ever undertaken.

Why we need National Accounts of Well-being

The narrow view from classical economics

When they were first being devised following the Great Depression, the original architects of modern national accounting systems were clear that welfare could not be inferred from measures of national income alone. But the Second World War led to an emphasis on productivity, which led in turn to the overwhelming concentration by governments on economic national accounting indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as measures of success. Yet these economic indicators offer a very narrow view of human well-being. While a strong and healthy economy may be desirable, it is desirable because it allows us to get on with doing the things that are really important: living happy, fulfilling lives.

Modern society is organised around the core assumption of classical economists that continual economic growth is desirable because it delivers improved human well-being. But evidence shows this is only true to a limited extent. Read more about why policy based on measuring economic growth has not delivered well-being .

The benefits of National Accounts of Well-being

National Accounts of Well-being offer countries a chance to re-think the way they define success and work to improve the lives their citizens. In particular they offer:

  • A new way of assessing societal progress. National Accounts of Well-being, by explicitly capturing how people feel and experience their lives, help to redefine our notions of national progress, success and what we value as a society.
  • A cross-cutting and more informative approach to policy-making. The challenges now facing policy-makers, including the ‘triple crunch’ of financial crisis, climate change and oil price shocks, are unprecedented. Silo working has long been criticised; now – when the need for systemic change is clear and present – it must be overcome. National Accounts of Well-being – by capturing population well-being across areas of traditional policy-making,and looking beyond narrow, efficiency-driven economic indicators – provide policy-makers with a better chance of understanding the real impact of their decisions on people’s lives.
  • Better engagement between national governments and the public. By resonating with what people care about, National Accounts of Well-being provide opportunities for national governments to reconnect with their citizens and, in doing so, to address the democratic deficit now facing many European nations.

What is well-being?

Achieving well-being has been the concern of philosophers since Aristotle, and is, in many respects the essence of human existence. In recent years, well-being has moved from the realm of philosophy to that of science. There has been a growing body of research into what contributes to the quality of people’s experiences of their lives. This has enabled a new understanding of the factors that both influence and constitute well-being.

The science of ‘subjective well-being’ suggests that as well as experiencing good feelings, people need:

  • a sense of individual vitality
  • to undertake activities which are meaningful, engaging, and which make them feel competent and autonomous
  • a stock of inner resources to help them cope when things go wrong and be resilient to changes beyond their immediate control.

It is also crucial that people feel a sense of relatedness to other people, so that in addition to the personal, internally focused elements, people’s social experiences – the degree to which they have supportive relationships and a sense of connection with others – form a vital aspect of well-being.

Defining well-being

While academic debate continues about precisely how ‘well-being’ should be defined, for our purposes it is not essential to address all of its finer points. All of the elements cited above play a role in ensuring that people feel their lives are going well, although their importance may vary as circumstances change.

Well-being is most usefully thought of as the dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going, through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and psychological resources or ‘mental capital’. The 2008 UK Government Foresight Project drew on key thinkingcommissioned from nef to define well-being in similar terms.

Because of this dynamic nature, high levels of well-being mean that we are more able to respond to difficult circumstances, to innovate and constructively engage with other people and the world around us. As well as representing a highly effective way of bringing about good outcomes in many different areas our lives, there is also a strong case for regarding well-being as an ultimate goal of human endeavour.


Published alongside this website, the report National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet sets out the details of nef‘s case for governments to systematically measure and report on the well-being of their populations. Using the latest findings from the field of well-being research, it demonstrates how the case for national well-being measures is closely linked to the history of economic national accounting. It describes how a framework for National Accounts of Well-being was developed from European Social Survey data and presents the resulting findings, to show how National Accounts of Well-being can provide a new, more meaningful measure of national success and help governments take decisions to improve the lives of their citizens.