Measuring wellbeing and happiness

April 9, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedNic Marks founded the Centre for Wellbeing at the London-based think tank New Economics Foundation and also more recently founded Happiness Works. Much of his work has focused on measuring wellbeing and happiness, as captured in his excellent talk from 2010.  When thinking about how a Transition initiative might measure the extent to which it is successfully helping to building wellbeing and happiness, he felt like the best place to start. 

Your current area of work is around wellbeing at work. What have you learnt from that and from your previous work that could help measure wellbeing at a community scale?

The first thing to say about measuring happiness and wellbeing is that we can create measures of them but you’re never going to precisely measure them. You’re asking people to assess their experience of life really when you’re into the realm of wellbeing. What’s the quality of their experience of life? We use structured questionnaires to do that. There are lots of different precise methodologies, but basically you’re asking people their feelings on a daily basis or over the last month, and you’re asking them to assess the quality of their life and use those to create measures of happiness and wellbeing. There are some standard scales that people use and we also create them specially for the workplace.
So what does wellbeing look like at a community scale? What would a happier, more resilient community look like and how might we be able to measure that?
At a community level, probably the best measure is something called the Warwick Edinburgh Wellbeing Scale. This is used to ask people both their feelings and also how functional they are; whether they’re able to make decisions, whether their relationships are strong and things like that.
What would it look like? Well, the currency of wellbeing is time and relationships. A community with high levels of wellbeing and happiness is going to be one where there are strong relationships, where people get along well, accept each other’s differences, are able to be themselves, and they have time to nourish those relationships in both ways really. You have to give as well as receive in relationships.
The heart of happiness and wellbeing is relationships. There are obviously other things, particularly personal things about how much we’re learning, how much we’re able to spend time in nature and how active we are. But the core of it really is relationships.
For groups who are doing Transition who want to in some way monitor and evaluate the work that they’re doing, what would be the useful places to start? Obviously if you’re a university department and you have a big research budget you can do much more extensive research, and if you’re a community initiative you don’t want to spend all the time you would otherwise spend actually doing things just measuring stuff. What would seem to be a doable place to start in terms of measuring your impact?
As I said, the Warwick Edinburgh Scale does a short version, I think it’s 8 or 9 questions and the longer one does about 14. It’s free to use, you can download the questionnaire and you just tot up the score.
Image Removed
Really you want to be tracking the same people through time to see whether they get happier through the project. Unfortunately there aren’t very strong online tools you can use. I’d like to build them one day. We’re building online tools for businesses at the moment, but it would be nice to be able to give something free away to communities which is an ambition but right now we don’t have that.
The other thing to frame it with is some work we did at the New Economics Foundation called the Five Ways to Wellbeing. This is something we did for the UK government office of science, their Foresight Project, which was basically trying to identify positive actions people could take to promote wellbeing. Like a piece of social marketing in a way, they’re an invitation into a wellbeing space.
And they are:
  • Connect: because social relationships are the strongest part really of happiness and wellbeing
  • Be active
  • Take notice: noticing what’s going on around us and within us
  • Keep learning: learning through your life course
  • Give: volunteering, generosity, altruism are all really good for our own wellbeing as well as other people’s.
Those five things I think are just enough unpacking of the idea of wellbeing and happiness to not over-confuse but to open up a space. If people are doing projects they might like to think, are they taking the boxes of connect, keep learning and give. Maybe they’re got something focused a bit more on activity or mindfulness and taking notice, or one on learning, one on volunteering, on making relationships. It can help them bring the energy of the others into those projects. So that’s a useful tool but it’s not really a measurement thing. It can guide. A lot of local authorities, local projects use the five ways as just a way to inform their wellbeing work.
Quite early on in the life of this government they announced they were going to be taking wellbeing and happiness and using indicators around wellbeing and happiness. Is it possible to have an austerity agenda that actually increases happiness? How do the push to save money on such an urgent, profound scale run alongside the need to build happiness? Are the two inherently mutually incompatible or could you have a happy version of austerity?
[Laughs] It’s unfortunate timing that that’s what the coalition government was doing, as they started to introduce wellbeing. It does feel like "we’re going to fob people off with the idea that we’re going to have austerity but they can be happy". It sound rather a disastrous combination.
Image Removed
What is sure is that once you’ve got past financial insecurity which is probably more due to the level of indebtedness than income. If you’ve got high levels of debt that’s really troublesome for wellbeing. Obviously low income doesn’t help at all. You have to have enough money to enter into the space that you can participate in society and there are lots of people that are excluded, so that is very problematic. But if you can get into the space of thinking about those five ways then money, as in more income, doesn’t become exceptionally important.
There definitely is a way and there definitely are people who are living on not exceptionally high incomes and are happier than people on much higher incomes. As a general rule of course, having income protects you from particularly bad things. It’s a difficult nuance to strike there without sounding very paternalistic and very cut off from the difficulty of some people’s lives.
To go back to the question, is it possible to have an economy which is contracting and cutting back on public spending and one that is growing in happiness at the same time?
Theoretically. To give you an example, Iceland which has gone through a much tougher transition than we have, actually Icelandic people got happier during that, and I think that had a lot to do with the fact they were living in a bit of a stressed out economy.  They had 15% unemployment almost immediately. Because everybody was in the same boat together there was a community spirit around unemployment.
The real problem is if you were made unemployed and had high levels of debt, then you were really suffering. If you didn’t have high levels of debt then people actually got happier, probably because they were spending more time with loved ones and relationships. How long that would last it’s difficult to know. The economy’s obviously picked up again. But there definitely was evidence that people got poorer and happier in Iceland over the last 4 years.
Do you find that the concepts of happiness and wellbeing cut across the political spectrum? Are they something that appeals as much to the left as to the right?
The biggest takeup’s been in the centre. But there are interesting ideas from the left and the right that meet the happiness agenda. So from the right, what’s classically called the Right, family, autonomy would be things that are really important for happiness and wellbeing. On the Left fairness, justice, respect, tolerance all are. So in some ways it’s not a left-right agenda.
Image RemovedI think in some ways the way that we at the New Economics Foundation and at Happiness Works think about happiness and wellbeing is a mix between individuals and the environment they find them in, the context they find them in. The Right places more emphasis on individuals and the Left places more emphasis on conditions and so how they come together is a new way of thinking about a synthesis between those two things.
The point really is some people do thrive in difficult circumstances, and people do sink in benign circumstances so there’s two things going on. But it’s also clearly true that more people thrive in good circumstances and more people sink in bad circumstances so you can decide where you put your emphasis. There are things that can appeal on both sides.
Our theme this month is around the impact of Transition. What’s your sense, from where you’ve sat over the last few years of the impact that Transition has had?
I see Transition popping up with interesting groups saying things and I’ve been to a couple of Transition meetings and talked to people, but I haven’t been deeply involved with the Transition network. What I’ve seen when I’ve been in Totnes or once when I was in North London groups is a very vibrant community where a lot of people are passionate about it.
Not always in the mainstream, so I would think the challenge must be – Totnes less so, in Totnes it is fairly mainstream – but in lots places how to get more involved with the mainstream I’m sure is a challenge. That’s a challenge we all face in this agenda of getting people to take climate change seriously and to take social challenges seriously, how do we take them mainstream.
In the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica had the world’s highest score. What have they got that we haven’t?
First of all, Latin American cultures generally do pretty well on happiness and wellbeing. They have a similar level of life expectancy and a similar level of GDP per capita as the Eastern European transition countries but they have much much higher levels of happiness and that’s really to do with their attitude, their joie de vivre rather than a more Eastern downtempo sort of thing, but most importantly they have very strong communities, very strong social connections, social participation which simply isn’t present in central Eastern Europe. So they’ve got these very strong relationships which is one really important thing.
Costa Rica specifically has done some very interesting things. It abolished the army in 1947 and has invested that money in social projects so education and health are really good and that’s shown in their life expectancy, which is higher than the USA and their literacy rates are spectacularly higher than the USA so they’ve actually got really good social and health outcomes there. They also have a geographical strategic advantage in that they have hydro.
Image Removed
From a carbon perspective they can be much more renewable than many other places. Iceland is the same, having geo-thermal energy. Where I live part of the time, Norway, similarly has hydro so their actual use of energy themselves is more sustainable. I call them fossil fuel pimps because they basically live off the earnings of fossil fuels in Norway. So Costa Rica does have a strategic advantage in that way. It all adds up really. If you think of the Happy Planet Index really as saying what’s the environmental efficiency of delivering wellbeing, as they end up delivering higher life expectancy, more happiness on a quarter of the carbon footprint of the USA. That’s interesting.
Kevin Anderson is often heard to say that staying below 2°C and economic growth are incompatible, but at the same time the push is always for more and more growth. Is there any way you see that we’ll ever choose as a society, as a culture, to leave the growth-based economy behind and if so, what role might a narrative based around happiness play in that?
In a sense that’s been the thrust of my work over the last 15 years, which is that I started working on alternative measures to GDP in 1992-93. Me and Professor Tim Jackson at Surrey University who wrote Prosperity without Growth, we worked on an early version of something called the Index for Sustainable Economic Welfare. Basically we were trying to add up the cost of climate change and the costs of other things and take them off GDP.
For me, that is the point of wellbeing. It has to change the discourse which is to say that economic indicators of progress are always saying more is always better. Actually I think we need to think about the quality of the experience we have and that’s why I’ve got interested in wellbeing. It was my driver. My driver was a sustainability driver to get into happiness and wellbeing in the first place. Humans are the problem in the system, so how do we think about that.
It becomes an intractable problem. If you think that GDP growth is a measure of the wellbeing of society, we all know that if you grow GDP you grow the throughput of materials and resources through the economy which is going to inevitably create sink and source problems – where does the carbon go and where do you get it from.  That throughput is hugely problematic and I think the only escape out of there is quality of life, and not thinking that quality of life is everybody on the planet having Mercedes and widescreen TVs and all of that.
How do we actually do that in a way that is sustainable? It’s this tension between good lives now, because everybody wants quality of life now. No politician can go to the poll and say we’re going to make life worse. Perhaps they’d do that in a war scenario, maybe Thatcher managed that a little bit, but you can’t really do that. The tension between quality of life now and quality of life in the future – it’s too easy, particularly with our short-term cycles of government, to avoid issues.
The governmental equivalent of nimbyism, not in my back yard, is NIMTFO (not in my term of office). Climate change gets pushed off into the future, it’s someone else’s problem. Regrettably, that’s where we remain stuck, and that’s why I’ve certainly been dedicating most of my adult life to thinking of new ways of measuring progress because I think we get it wrong. I think if we got it right we wouldn’t be so frightened of having to not have future gains in consumption. That’s probably the way to think about it, rather than giving up consumption. It’s actually how do we stabilise it first and how do we de-carbonise it.
There’s relative poverty and there’s absolute poverty, the relative poverty would get less bad if we didn’t have people who were super rich at the top of the income spectrum. The absolute poverty absolutely needs dealing with. For the rest of us, money only buys us a bigger car and a bigger house and a dew holidays, but actually if we had less and we had more time then it probably would be a better life. People hang on to what they’ve got. They hang on to what they know, and it’s quite difficult to move beyond that.
Lastly do you think there is an evidence base building now that more localised, more resilient economies would be happier economies?
I don’t know of very specific studies that show that absolutely, but if you take a reading of the literature of it, everything about wellbeing and happiness is proximal, is close to us. So the logic of everything being local is absolutely playing into the logic of happiness and wellbeing. I can’t believe that that is not a good outcome and not a good possibility. There definitely are big differences between communities in terms of happiness and wellbeing. Even independent of things like the Index of Multiple Deprivation and things like that. There are places where things are going great and things that are going less well that are independent of financial matters. There’s lots and lots of potential to do things independently of that, for sure. 

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: happiness, well-being