Social policy and wellbeing

While applying for the position of Wellbeing Researcher Intern at the IAD, I developed an interest in how the idea of ‘wellbeing’ has changed over time. Historically, discussions about wellbeing were restricted largely to philosophy. More recently however, wellbeing has become a central focus for many fields, including psychology, politics and economics.

What has caused the recent surge of popularity in the concept of wellbeing and how is this new interest being used to improve societal wellbeing?

Where has this attention come from?

The first major of interest in wellbeing in society emerged in the 1950s when income began to increase and a range of social issues failed to be addressed. However, wellbeing did not begin to dictate policy until much later; before anyone could try to improve societal wellbeing, they needed to find a way to reliably measure it.

How can wellbeing be measured?

Originally, GDP was the main measure used to indicate societal progress, but it became clear that there is not a direct link between happiness and income beyond a certain threshold – the Easterlin Paradox. Furthermore, an individual that scores highly on quantitative measures relating to quality of life does not necessarily feel like they have increased wellbeing or happiness.

Consequently, emphasis was placed on subjective measures, including surveys and reports. Some studies have shown that subjective wellbeing scores relate to other measures, including rates of sociability and happiness ratings given by family members, providing evidence that subjective wellbeing results are valid (Kahneman & Krueger, 2006). One major problem in measuring and improving societal wellbeing is that it is influenced by a huge number of factors, and the exact impact that many of these factors have on societal wellbeing (as well as each other) is not well understood yet. Some of these factors were investigated by the OECD Better Life Initiative, demonstrated in the diagram below.


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Diagram by OECD 2013 at

Policy change

Another surge of interest in wellbeing developed in the 90s, where the emphasis for research focussed primarily on how environmental factors, such as sustainability, influence wellbeing. As more valid and reliable methods for measuring wellbeing became available, these statistics were able to make a difference in guiding policy.

Some policies were established pre-2000, but David Cameron made wellbeing a high-profile issue in politics by supporting the ONS Measuring Wellbeing Program in 2010. ONS wellbeing data was used across departments and, by 2015, self-reported wellbeing statistics were used for evaluating policies.

How does this affect researchers?

Researchers have high stress and, often, low security positions, which obviously has extremely negative repercussions for their wellbeing. But all researchers should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and achieve a sense of purpose in society due to their role (e.g. through public engagement as I discussed in last week’s post). For this reason, wellbeing is, and must remain, a priority for the government and all universities. This is further demonstrated by the following quote written by the Government Office for Science, London.

“The world of work is changing, with far-reaching consequences: globalisation and the growing intensification of work will combine to increase workers’ levels of stress and anxiety, and affect their health and efficiency. Changes in the nature of work will also interact with changes at home, such as growing numbers of two-earner households and increased need for care for older relatives, thereby creating pressures on families. Maintaining and improving wellbeing in the face of these trends will be a major challenge.” (Final Project Report, Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project 2008, page 25)


If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, I recommend these resources:

Bache, I. and Reardon, L. (2016). The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Kahneman, D. and Krueger, A. B. (2006). Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, (1), 3-24.

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