Research projects

The Many Dimensions of Well-being

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

Well-being 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 well-being. However, sustained policies to improve well-being 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, Mark Fabian and Marco Felici.

During the past decade, there has been growing recognition that the measurement of economic progress needs to extend beyond GDP. The measurement of well-being 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 policy makers can use. This project is exploring how we might select the most significant well-being indicators for different people or places so policymakers can get an impression of the well-being ‘health’ of the country at a glance.

About the project

The project has two strands:

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

Variables that explain difference in subjective well-being at one scale, such as the individual, often do not explain well-being 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 well-being across individuals, but is a key determinant at higher levels of geographic aggregation. Understanding how various determinants of well-being 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 well-being.

Our preliminary analyses broadly support the existing knowledge on the patterns of well-being: Life Satisfaction and other indicators of subjective well-being 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 well-being.

However, our investigations have also revealed complex and unequal interactions between educational attainment and well-being 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, with assistance from Yamini Cinamon Nair. It explores the possibility of democratising well-being public policy, especially with regard to how well-being is measured.

Defining well-being requires making a value judgement, and in liberal-democracies these ought to involve the citizens who will be affected by policies. Judgements of well-being 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 well-being 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 well-being 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 well-being 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 well-being measures that can be used by national statistical agencies and the like can be developed from the bottom up in a democratic fashion.

Measuring Well-Being is an interdisciplinary partnership between the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, contributing to its work on providing an evidence base on the relative impacts of policies and projects on well-being.


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

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