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Measuring Wellbeing

Measuring Wellbeing

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No 4/2012 by Talina Drabsch
Interest in measuring the wellbeing of societies and the individuals which comprise them is not new and there has been research in this area for a number of decades. However, the interest in measuring wellbeing has been growing over the last decade or so and particularly seems to have gained some momentum in recent times as a result of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Some view the GFC as proof of the damage that can result by too great a focus on continual economic growth regardless of the cost and by ignoring the other factors that contribute to wellbeing.

Section two (pp 2 to 4) explores the various definitions used for 'wellbeing', noting the domains of life it covers and the subjective and objective aspects to it. Wellbeing embodies the idea of life satisfaction, and positive and negative emotions, in addition to the more objective components of capabilities and fair allocations.

A timeline of some of the milestones in the history of measuring wellbeing is included in section three (pp 5 to 6). The timeline reveals the acceleration of interest in this area in recent years, particularly at a global level.

Some historical context is provided in section four (pp 7 to 13) to help explain the current level of interest in the topic. Whilst GDP is widely acknowledged as a valuable indicator, its limitations are explored as is the context in which it was developed. Reference is also made to some of the research into the links or lack thereof between happiness and GDP per capita. The warnings by some commentators about the way in which wellbeing data may be misused are noted.

Section five (pp 14 to 18) explores the ways in which wellbeing may be measured. There are five main approaches including: correct GDP; measure subjective wellbeing; composite indices; user-weighted indices; and a dashboard approach. Some of the factors to consider to ensure a certain quality of data is maintained are noted.

The debate over whether public policy should in fact be concerned with maximising the happiness of individuals is discussed in section six (pp 119 to 21). The advantages thought to accrue from enhancing societal wellbeing are highlighted, and these include benefits to individuals as well as to society as a whole.

Section seven (pp 22 to 30) examines some of the developments in measuring wellbeing in Australia, at a national, state and local level. Australia has been a forerunner in the field and the work of a number of Australian organisations has been recognised internationally.

Numerous international bodies have developed wellbeing indicator systems and some of these are discussed in section eight (pp 30 to 37). Selected initiatives in Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America are considered.