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The Many Dimensions of Wellbeing

The Many Dimensions of Wellbeing provides insights into why and how wellbeing varies for different groups in society. It aims to offer central and local government a set of simple, practical, and evidence-informed measures for wellbeing.

Wellbeing is high on the agenda of governments worldwide but using it as a guide for policy requires good measurements. There are already many indicators of contributors to wellbeing. However, sustained policies to improve wellbeing will depend on being able to focus on a small number of key measures.

The project is headed by Professor Diane Coyle, with Matthew Agarwala, Anna Alexandrova, and Mark Fabian.

During the past decade, there has been growing recognition that the measurement of economic progress needs to extend beyond GDP. The measurement of wellbeing as a holistic indicator of progress is an appealing alternative generating a good deal of policy interest. But for governments to put this into practice, the first step is developing the tools to measure it in a practical way policymakers can use. This project is exploring how we might select the most significant wellbeing indicators for different people or places so policy makers can get an impression of the wellbeing ‘health’ of the country at a glance.

About the project

The project has two strands:

Firstly, the quantitative strand involves Matthew Agarwala. It explores variation in the determinants of subjective wellbeing at different geographic levels using the ONS4 – survey questions pertaining to feelings of satisfaction, happiness, anxiety, and purpose.

Variables that explain difference in subjective wellbeing at one scale, such as the individual, often do not explain wellbeing as effectively at different scales, such as the city or region. Education, for example, has been found in the literature to explain little of the variation in subjective wellbeing across individuals, but is a key determinant at higher levels of geographic aggregation. Understanding how various determinants of wellbeing interact at different scales – from the individual to the national – is crucial for designing effective policy. This research seeks to understand these discrepancies and harness them to improve wellbeing.

Our preliminary analyses broadly support the existing knowledge on the patterns of wellbeing: Life Satisfaction and other indicators of subjective wellbeing vary geographically and have socio-economic and demographic gradients. Age, income, self-assessed health, and intensity of social networks tend to be positively correlated with wellbeing.

However, our investigations have also revealed complex and unequal interactions between educational attainment and wellbeing at different scales and for those with high versus low life satisfaction. Preliminary results across the full sample show that having a degree (and similarly, having more people with degrees in an area), is positively associated with life satisfaction at the individual level, but that this relationship becomes statistically insignificant when controlling for income.

This may be expected because education and income are closely related, meaning it can be difficult to isolate the effect of either. However, when examining this relationship for those with high versus low life satisfaction, statistically significant relationships between education and life satisfaction are found even after controlling for income, age, employment, marital status, health, and social relationships.

For those who report low Life Satisfaction, having a degree is positively associated with Life Satisfaction, whereas people who report high levels of life satisfaction, the relationship is negative instead.

Secondly, the qualitative strand involves Anna Alexandrova and Mark Fabian. It explores the possibility of democratising wellbeing public policy, especially with regard to how wellbeing is measured.

Defining wellbeing requires making a value judgement, and in liberal-democracies these ought to involve the citizens who will be affected by policies. Judgements of wellbeing tend to vary according to the context of the stakeholders involved. Citizens in the sustainability field, for example, tend to emphasise access to green space, biodiversity, and air quality. Those in the mental health field may be more interested in depression, anxiety, and social support.

The team is working in partnership with Turn2us, a national charity, and citizens with lived experience of financial hardship to co-produce measures of wellbeing that are relevant to the context of the welfare system. This bottom up process centres the value judgements of citizens but engages experts and policy professionals to translate those value judgements into forms that can be readily applied.

This co-production process is proceeding in the following stages:

Firstly, we conducted an online survey of ~1500 people with lived experienced of financial hardship through Turn2us’ newsletter. We asked them about what wellbeing means to them to give us an initial steer.

Secondly, we are now holding one-on-one and small-group interviews across a ‘working group’ consisting of the Bennett Team, six senior staff members from Turn2us, and four co-production partners with lived expertise. This interviewing process will produce a preliminary report in early March detailing a theory and measures of wellbeing that are endorsed by co-production partners and practical for Turn2us’ work.

Thirdly, the working group will be joined by an additional 12 co-production partners and representatives from government and other charities in the sector at a workshop in April to deliberate on the preliminary report. This workshop has two principle purposes: to expand the co-production process to a larger number of lived experts with a diversity of experiences, and to ensure that the output of the co-production process resonates with experts who were not involved in the working group. After further refining the preliminary report, we hope that all participants in the workshop will sign off on a final report.

In the fourth stage of the project, this report will be put to another online survey for ratification. If it is rejected at this stage, we will return to the working group process to make further revisions.

Longer-term, we hope to engage further rounds of coproduction to try and generalise the outcomes of this process beyond Turn2us. The first round will be with sectoral partners in the poverty reduction space. Thereafter, we will seek to cooperate with government and other policy stakeholders to apply the process in the broader social and welfare policy space. As the context for which the theory and measures are being developed widens in scope at each stage, the theory and measures will necessarily need to be abstracted somewhat. In this way, a parsimonious list of high-level wellbeing measures that can be used by national statistical agencies and the like can be developed from the bottom up in a democratic fashion.

Measuring WellBeing is an interdisciplinary partnership between the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing (WWCW), contributing to its work on providing an evidence base on the relative impacts of policies and projects on wellbeing.




Crossing Channels: Wellbeing at work – whose job is it to fix it?

Rory Cellan-Jones and leading experts Gordon Harold, Laura Nurski and Zoe Purcell discuss why mental wellbeing in the workplace is essential, and what policymakers can do to promote a healthy workforce.

Wellbeing: Measuring what matters to people

An insightful podcast with Dr Matthew Agarwala, Economist, and Dr Mark Fabian, Social Scientist, at the Bennett Institute, chaired by Deborah Hardoon, WWCW, about the most useful ways to value lifestyle – health, relationships, environment – and its policy implications.

What is the future of wellbeing?

The University of Cambridge’s Nick Saffell and James Dolan talk with the Bennett Institute’s social scientist Dr Mark Fabian, psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Amy Orben, and psychiatrist Dr Tamsin Ford, to try and get to grips with wellbeing, including what can we do to understand, measure and improve it?


  • Subjective Wellbeing Workshop: Using self-reported qualitative data to assess scale norming, with Dr Mark Fabian. (Feb 2021)

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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Dr Mark Fabian

Affiliated Researcher

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Diane Coyle 2018

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Professor Anna Alexandrova is a Professor in Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, with a special focus on social sciences. Prior to her current role, she was an...

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Dr Marco Felici

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Dr Marco Felici works at the intersection of policy and research, with interests spanning household finance, housing, subjective wellbeing, and mental health. With colleagues at the Bennett Institute, he explores...

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