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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 www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org

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’

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


Today’s Financial Times includes a full page of analysis discussing the growing movement among economists and others towards producing alternative measures of economic performance and social progress. If you’ve already read our National Accounts of Well-being report , published last weekend, or looked at the accompanying website, much of the content will be familiar: the strong caution issued by Simon Kuznets, the designer of the original GDP measure, that it should not be used to infer the welfare of a nation; the perverse nature of the way GDP is calculated by mechanically counting productivity, so that spending on things like divorce proceedings is counted as a benefit; and the current work of the commission headed by Nobel-laureate economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to develop new measures to enable us to change “our political priorities and build happier, greener, societies”.

The article concludes by highlighting what it describes as “perhaps the most controversial issue” being examined by the commission, namely “whether to create some kind of ‘happiness index’ based on surveys of people’s attitudes”. What it doesn’t mention is that this is precisely what we have done in our work on National Accounts of Well-being. While we don’t claim that our indicators are the final word on how governments should measure people’s experiences of their lives, they certainly show how, by using high-quality survey data, robust and detailed measures of well-being are not only possible, but now a reality.

It remains to be seen what the Stiglitz-Sen commission will conclude when it reports in April. But crucially, to enable policy-makers to truly understand the impact of their actions on the reality of people’s lives, societies must start paying attention to the ways in which subjective well-being can be carefully and seriously measured. We think that our National Accounts of Well-being represent a substantial step forward along this path and our growing band of expert supporters suggests that many others are beginning to think so too.

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

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What is the best way to measure whether a country is successful? For most of the last 100 years, we have tended to assume that the answer lies in observing the growth of headline economic indicators, such as GDP. Plenty of criticisms have been levelled at GDP – it is far too narrow a measure, takes no account of the distribution of resources or environmental costs, and so on. And recent events hammer home the point that chasing ever-increasing economic growth is a fool’s errand. Even Gordon Brown, since 1997 the de-facto Chief Financial Officer of UK PLC, has had to admit that there’s no such thing as boom without the bust.

Our new report, National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet, published on Saturday, provides a different response to the question. It argues that the success of nations is best measured in terms of the things that really matter to the people who live in them: their experiences, feelings and perceptions of how their lives are going. In other words, their subjective well-being. After all, as British economist Andrew Oswald noted almost 30 years ago:

“Economic performance is not intrinsically interesting…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.”

What does matter to us, and is arguably the ultimate goal of all human endeavour, is that we feel good about ourselves and the people around us, and do things in our lives which give us a sense of meaning and value.

Of course, the current economic situation is going to seriously hurt a lot of people. But in the post-crash world, we need to ask ourselves whether we want to rebuild the system according to the same flawed blueprint, or find a better compass to guide us.

The first set of National Accounts of Well-being, which nef has produced for 22 countries across Europe, are a tangible means by which governments can monitor their progress in promoting the well-being of their citizens. Using the most comprehensive international survey data on subjective well-being ever collected, we have designed a framework of measures which describe a nuanced picture of people’s experiences. For example, as well as measuring whether people have good feelings, we also look at whether they undertake activities which are meaningful, engaging and which make them feel competent and autonomous. And alongside our first headline measure of personal well-being we also measure people’s social well-being  – whether they have supportive relationships and a sense of connection with others.

The results – which can be explored interactively on the website accompanying the report – show how far we still have to go when measuring success in these terms. While Denmark retains its oft-cited position with the highest well-being levels in Europe, Sweden, so often singled out to be praised for its policy success, does not feature among the top five countries on personal well-being. The UK’s performance according to the headline indicators is distinctly middling, and on the trust and belonging component of social well-being it comes a very poor 20th out of the 22 countries.

By redefining success in terms of how people actually experience their lives, National Accounts of Well-being set out a challenge for anyone interested in shaping the future of their society. But they also provide a crucial tool in efforts towards creating brighter tomorrows, in a classic illustration of one of nef‘s key principles: that measuring the things which matter is a crucial step in getting them to change.

So how quick will governments be to adopt these new measures of success? Given the growing political interest in well-being we’re optimistic that it won’t take too long. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the reaction to our proposal, and carrying on making the case that we should be measuring what matters most…

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

If you hoped that the recession might buy us some time to combat climate change, you’re likely to be disappointed. That’s according to figures from the UK’s Committee for Climate Change which predict that even a serious fall in GDP would only deliver a fraction of emissions reductions. The Guardian has the full story here, including some perspectives from nef‘s Policy Director Andrew Simms. Andrew explains:

There’s a strong lockstep between GDP and emissions. You wouldn’t get more than a 1% change in emissions unless you had something really dramatic happening, like closing a whole industry down… Because of the recession, perversely, fuel prices have gone down a lot and that might cancel out some of the savings expected in that sector.

Of course, nef doesn’t expect back-to-business-as-usual to solve the climate crisis either. Take a look at some our most recent publications on the way out of recession and ecological mayhem:

And if you haven’t already, be sure to read ‘Paradigm reclaimed‘, Stephen Spratt’s blog post about how to build a better banking system.

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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.