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Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

nef is on the road to producing a second set of its National Accounts of Well-being, as part of a successful bid to design a 50-item module of well-being questions on a prestigious European survey.

The original National Accounts of Well-being, published in January 2009, produced headline measures of personal and social well-being for 22 countries across Europe. The indicators and their constituent elements were made available for full interactive exploration on The results showed that Denmark, Switzerland and Norway had the highest levels of overall well-being, with the UK ranked 13th out of 22 on personal well-being and 15th on social well-being.

The data behind these results came from a specially designed module on the third round of the European Social Survey (ESS), a major survey of over 40,000 people across Europe. The module was designed by a cross-national team of experts from across Europe, led by Professor Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge and including the Founder of the centre for well-being at nef, Nic Marks. Together with two other members of the original team, Professor Johannes Siegrist of the University of Dusseldorf and Professor Joar Vittersø of the University of Tromsø, and new member Professor Carmelo Vázquez of Complutense University of Madrid, we have now won the opportunity to design a repeat of the well-being module to be included in the sixth round of the ESS.

The new well-being module will repeat many of the original questions, which will allow ground-breaking analysis of detailed changes in well-being over time between participating European countries. In addition, the successful bid outlines the team’s intention to explore a number of new questions, including further measures of engagement, social well-being, and participation in activities described by our evidence-based Five Ways to Well-being.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

‘ “Want to grab some lunch?” ask a couple of colleagues as they walk past your desk’. This is the unconventional opening of the excellent MINDSPACE report on influencing behaviour through public policy, here taking its own advice in making information seem relevant to the people at whom it is aimed (in this case, civil servants designing policy).

Commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published earlier this year by the Institute for Government, MINDSPACE is a mnemonic for nine key influences on behaviour which should be given attention in the policy-making process. Drawn from the extensive literature on what influences our behaviour, MINDSPACE sets out that: we are heavily affected by the Messenger delivering information; respond to Incentives through shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses; we are influenced by the Norms of what others do; go with the flow of Defaults; we are drawn to Salient information and Primed by sub-conscious cues; are strongly influenced by Affect, that is, our emotional experiences; seek to be consistent to the public Commitments we make and act in ways which make us feel better about ourselves and thus protect our Ego.

The report contains lots of illuminating examples showing how these influences can be and have been used in designing policy. It also makes two very important observations about policy making as a whole. First, that

whether we like it or not, the actions of policymakers, public service professionals, markets and our fellow citizens around us have big, and often unintended, impacts on our behaviour. ‘Doing nothing’ is never a neutral option

This is of key relevance to those of us advocating a well-being led approach to policy-making. While we are often accused of wanting policy to overly interfere in people’s lives, in fact, given that all policy affects behaviour, it is also very likely to affect how people experience their lives. So policy-makers should see themselves as having to ensure that the effects they create through their policy decisions are postive rather than negative to well-being overall.

The second key observation is that

Government needs to understand the ways it may be changing the behaviour of citizens unintentionally…some priming effects work in surprising ways.

For me, this is an excellent summary of the reasons why nef advocates using well-being measures as ultimate indicators of society’s progress. When government focuses its energies on the growth of the country’s GDP, we are thereby primed to behave as though economic factors are the most important influence on our personal well-being, although the evidence, and much of our ‘folk knowledge’, suggests otherwise. By concentrating instead on the well-being outcomes of its policies, government could help us all to improve our own well-being by prioritising what really matters.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

TED, the organisers of high profile conferences devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ have just announced the line up for next month’s TEDGlobal 2010, which includes not one, but two nef Fellows.  Nic Marks, Founder of nef‘s centre for well-being and creator of the Happy Planet Index will be taking the stage in Oxford in the opening session of the conference, on 13 July, followed two day’s later by nef fellow Tim Jackson, author of the ground-breaking Prosperity Without Growth. Other speakers  include David McCandless, author of the Information Is Beautiful blog, architect David Adjaye, and singer Annie Lennox, talking about her work on HIV/AIDS.

If you’ve never visited the TED site, its back catalogue of talks by a dazzling array of speakers from previous conferences is highly recommended viewing. A few gems from the all-time favourites category include Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity, Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice, Dan Gilbert on what makes us happy, and Hans Rosling in the most spectacular talk on statistics in the whole world, ever.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.


We agree that when making policy, a broad account of flourishing — including autonomy, meaningful activities and strong relationships — is more useful than a narrow focus on happiness, which risks denoting merely momentary or passing pleasures (“The end of government”, leading article, Mar 27). But given the wide range of influences on our experiences of life, government policy — however it is shaped — will inescapably affect our wellbeing, for good or for ill.

This is very far from “forcing people to be happy”. The findings of an established body of research suggest that current policy, focused beyond all else on stimulating economic growth, crowds out from daily life the activities known to lead to wellbeing: connecting with others, learning new skills or giving our time.

Gauging government success, according to National Accounts of Well-being, would provide the incentives to create policy firmly focused on improving the lives of UK citizens. Our research, first published last year, shows how wellbeing, understood as a multifaceted, dynamic concept, could be robustly and systematically measured.

The inventors of gross domestic product (GDP) never intended it to become the compass that guides all policymaking. Today’s environmental crisis makes the shortcomings of GDP all too clear: it rises when forests are cut down or when money is spent cleaning up an oil slick. With both our natural and social support systems being pushed to breaking point, finding a better measure of progress has never been more urgent.

Juliet Michaelson and Saamah Abdallah
Centre for Wellbeing
nef (the new economics foundation)

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

An interesting piece by Kari Stoever in The Huffington Post, reflecting on the discussion about nef‘s Happy Planet Index that took place last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The piece usefully reflects on the “intuitive” sense that money doesn’t buy happiness, an intuition reflected in the findings of well-being research. Even so, it doesn’t  get the interpretation of the Index quite right. It says:

“the United States ranks as low as most of sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, consuming more than our share of resources doesn’t make us happier, despite the fact that we live almost twice as long than those in sub-Saharan Africa who consume very little.”

This suggest that life satisfaction scores (how the HPI measures happiness) in the US are as low as in sub-Sarahan Africa. They aren’t. But what the HPI does show is that Americans are producing fewer units of well-being per units of resources consumed than countries like Malawi and Congo. Which is a sobering thought indeed for the champions of consumption who constitute the vast majority of Davos participants.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, Catherine Bennett is unconvinced that “it is the state’s business to meet those psychological needs” that the Young Foundation’s recent research has highlighted. She suggests that “since no nice person would want to set their face against general wellbeing”, using well-being as a political goal is utterly devoid of meaning. This inadvertently raises a crucial question: what is the overall goal of politics?

Economic growth is the most common headline measure of political success. Combating problems such as poor mental health or income inequality, although dismissed by Bennett, might also be candidates. In fact none of these pass muster in the role of ultimate outcome for societies. When examined closely, it becomes clear that they are all different means to the end of well-being: enabling people to experience their lives going well. As the economist Andrew Oswald has noted:

People have no innate interest in the money supply, inflation, growth, inequality, unemployment … Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier.

Aiming for well-being is not about seeking an “immediate surge in collective pleasure”, as Bennett puts it. It is about a life well lived, not short-term happiness or pleasure seeking. What we do is fundamental to how we feel, and research shows that strong connections to other people and engagement in meaningful activities are among the most important determinants of well-being. This understanding informs our work at nef, where we have demonstrated that well-being outcomes can be robustly and systematically measured through a framework of national accounts of well-being.

There is broad public support for well-being being the ultimate political goal. A 2006 poll for the BBC found that 81% of people supported the idea that the government’s prime objective should be the “greatest happiness” rather than the “greatest wealth”. Furthermore, a sense of well-being is itself a means to traditional policy ends, with proven links, for example, to longer life expectancy and improved health outcomes.

Bennett suggests that it would be “surreal” for policy initiatives to aim to improve well-being. But what is truly surreal is that public policy has often been antithetical to well-being – encouraging long work hours and personal debt, and engendering intense competition from tests at primary school onwards. The evidence shows that our current turbo-charged consumption levels are largely driven by competition for status – a zero-sum activity where for every winner there is a loser.

Focusing on social position through material goods leads to the inescapable treadmill of working longer and harder to buy ever more – at the cost both to well-being and the planet. While some less empathetic members of the public may, as Bennett says, “feel quite happy with current levels of brittleness, inequality and mental ill health”, this is cold comfort to those suffering at the sharp end of these problems. And as evidence from epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson has highlighted, we all suffer under greater levels of inequality, given its associations with crime, low social capital and a host of other undesirable outcomes. There is a clear role here for policy to discourage the excesses of these damaging behaviours.

Fortunately, the evidence from fields such as behavioural economics and positive psychology also points to what enhances experienced well-being. The “five ways to well-being“, distilled by nef from a 2008 government review of the latest scientific evidence in the field, identify well-being-enhancing activities in everyday life. Current policy, directed towards maximising hours spent in paid employment and failing to value non-market activities, hampers people’s ability to get involved in the sorts of community and voluntary activities that offer some of the best opportunities to connect with others, be physically active, take notice of what’s around us, learn new skills, and give. It is not the state’s business to impose such activities on us. But it does have a clear role in establishing the conditions that allow individuals to maximise their own well-being. This is the true yardstick by which political success should be measured.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Central Lobby, Palace of Westminster (Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament)

Leading members of the three main political parties addressed the second meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics yesterday, with a striking degree of consensus that well-being should urgently rise up the political agenda. Labour peer Professor Lord Richard Layard, Oliver Letwin MP, Chair of the Conservative Research Department and Policy Review and Chris Huhne MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, all agreed that GDP fails as an adequate measure of welfare and pointed to the need for a new way of measuring the things that are really important. The comments of all three speakers supported the aims of the Group, for which nef acts as the secretariat, to challenge GDP as the sole indicator of wealth and promote new measures of societal progress.

The speakers agreed that policy-making should be much more focused on what well-being research tell us are the drivers of high well-being, with lots of emphasis given to the importance of supporting good relationships. But there was not unanimity on all points of policy. For example, only Chris Huhne mentioned, as a strong argument in favour of progressive taxation, the varying well-being value of an extra pound of income to people with different levels of economic wealth.

However, there was general consent to the proposition that without a strong headline measure to rival GDP, the well-being agenda would not get the attention it requires. Oliver Letwin perhaps went furthest in this direction. He spoke of the ‘terrible danger’ that the Conservatives would find themselves in government and under pressure to focus only on traditional political issues unless a ‘serious, competing measure’ of well-being could be produced. He pointed to the need for all three parties to act in step to create a ‘political licence to talk about what really matters’. As Chair Jo Swinson MP pointed out, this is exactly what the ongoing work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group will aim to bring about.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

This article first appeared at Policy Innovations.

A sunset in Costa Rica, the nation that topped the Happy Planet Index 2.0. | Image by Alexander Steffler

A sunset in Costa Rica, the nation that topped the Happy Planet Index 2.0. | Image by Alexander Steffler

Governments around the world are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place: We are now nearly two years into what is widely heralded as the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the ecological crisis of global warming threatens the foundations of human civilization. Should countries stimulate their economies at any cost? How should they prioritize the health of global and local ecosystems? The debates about whether government money should be used to shore up struggling car industries neatly encapsulate these sorts of dilemmas.

Many in government may feel that the best overall path is far from clear. Part of the problem is that they lack tools for making these sorts of policy decisions. The common yardstick since the 1940s has been GDP growth. Gross Domestic Product reflected the wartime concern with increasing economic productivity, and since then it has become synonymous with progress. As the United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission notes, “The state has become caught up in a belief that growth should trump all other policy goals.”

Yet intrinsic to growing GDP is the need to produce more stuff. This is exactly what our planet cannot sustain. More stuff requires more of the Earth’s dwindling fossil energy supplies, with waste products that threaten the climate.

The kernel of the solution to resolving these competing demands lies within the structure of the problem itself. The fact that economic growth can be conceived of in opposition to the health of the planet suggests that neither can claim to be regarded as the true overall measure of success in human society. A much more convincing case is made by the concept of well-being. The experience of well-being is about feeling that your life is going well, something which is universally important to people everywhere. The concept of well-being enables us to define the ultimate aim of human endeavor to be healthy, happy, and meaningful lives.

The Earth’s resources are the fundamental input to this system. A well-regulated economy is just one means to produce well-being—along with others including community, technology, values, and governance. Systems thinking also shows us that using planetary resources so that they can be sustained into the future is vital to ensuring that human well-being can also be maintained in the long term.

The updated Happy Planet Index (HPI), published last month by nef (the new economics foundation), uses this view of society to formulate an indicator of overall progress. Scores on the HPI represent the amount of human well-being a country produces relative to its resource use. It is measured in terms of long and happy lives. The HPI is thus an efficiency index, measuring how much well-being is achieved per unit of environmental impact:

HPI ≈ (Life expectancy x Life satisfaction) / Ecological footprint

Read the rest of this entry »

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

gallup-healthways-map2In making the case for the regular collection of national level statistics on population well-being, our National Accounts of Well-being report highlighted the interesting model provided by the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index. This is a survey which since January 2008 has conducted 1000 interviews almost every day of the year across the United States to produce detailed well-being data on a daily basis. As a privately-sponsored survey, the full dataset is not publicly available, but a new website allows the data collected in 2008 to be explored at state- and congressional district-level .

The approach to conceptualising and measuring well-being is somewhat different to our own: while our National Accounts of Well-being were based on seven key components of personal and social well-being, the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index is built up of six domains of well-being. There are some similarities, with two of the Gallup-Healthways domains being built on measures of emotional health and evaluations of life as a whole, mirroring our emotional well-being and satisfying life components. But, in part reflecting the healthcare industry sponsorship of the survey, the domains also expand beyond subjective well-being to measure physical health, healthy behaviour, work environment and basic needs and services. It’s a useful point of comparison to our National Accounts of Well-being, and will help frame the debate about exactly which elements of population well-being it is most useful to systematically measure. It also demonstrates the growing recognition, in the private sector as well as in government and policy circles, of the value of rigorously collected population well-being statistics.

Bookmark and ShareJuliet Michaelson is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

A letter to the Financial Times, 30 January 2009.

Sir, As John Thornhill notes (“A measure remodelled”, January 28), those such as Simon Kuznets who developed the modern measure of gross domestic product were explicit that it should not be used as an indicator of social progress. More than 60 years on, in a classic example of mission creep, GDP remains the de facto measure of national success and is used as the standard against which virtually all macro-level policy decisions are judged. The consequences of this obsession with economic growth are clear: a financial system disconnected from the real economy, unsustainable levels of debt and intolerable strain placed on the planet by our high-consuming lifestyles.

The new economics foundation has long called for governments to establish national accounts of subjective well-being – systematic measures of how people think and feel about their lives. In a report launched last weekend, we provided the first ever detailed proposal for how they could be structured and implemented – see

An approach endorsed by, among others, Enrico Giovannini, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s chief statistician, and Prof Daniel Kahneman, the economics Nobel laureate, national well-being accounts provide a direct measure of meaningful outcomes in people’s lives.

By enabling policymakers to understand the real impact of their actions on people’s experience, such accounts would reconnect government with its core purpose: improving the lot of the people it serves. It is a reconnection that must be swiftly expedited. As we enter uncharted territory it is clear that we need a better compass to guide us; National Accounts of Well-being would be a significant step in the right direction.

Juliet Michaelson
Sam Thompson
Centre for Well-being,
nef (new economics foundation),
London SE11, UK

See also: Reuters, ‘On wealth versus well-being’


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.