What is the meaning of life?  Measuring National well-being in the UK

A group of people looking happy, they have their arms around each other and are in a park type setting with sunlight behind them

This week, ONS has published a range of data on what people tell us matters most to them when it comes to living a good and meaningful life.  Here Tim Vizard looks at what we’ve discovered, why it is important and our plans to continue exploring beyond purely economic measures to get a fuller picture of how our society is doing.

As a statistician, it would be nice to report that author Douglas Adams was right and that the meaning of life is “42”.  But of course it’s rather more complicated than that. For over a decade, the ONS has been asking people to tell us about the factors that affect how they feel about their lives and what helps to make it positive and meaningful.

Today we published our latest measures of national well-being. These ten ‘domains’ bring to light how we are doing across different areas such as our relationships, our health, our finances, our environment, our education and skills and what we do.

As society changes, we need to make sure the way we measure a thriving society changes with it. So we’ve been revisiting the original well-being measures we used and today, included some new ones such as how hopeful people feel about their future, how fairly we feel treated by society, how satisfied we are with our social relationships, our time use and our neighbourhood as a place to live.

Tracking progress

There’s a lot of support for the well-being measures. But we recognise the ongoing question on the number of measures, and the challenge in bringing these together in commensurate time periods with economic measures such as GDP, to track progress beyond just the wealth of the nation.

Earlier this week, we published our regular update on personal well-being, where we ask adults how they rate their overall life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10, along with the feeling that the things they do in life are worthwhile and how happy and how anxious they were yesterday.

This data shows a nation whose overall personal well-being had improved since the COVID pandemic, but one that is still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic impacted on many aspects of life that are central to our well-being, from education and household finances to access to green spaces and socialising with friends.

Complex challenges

Drill down into the detail, and there is much to help inform national and local governments, charities, service providers, and other users of our statistics to understand people’s circumstances better. This can lead to media reports of ‘the happiest place in the UK’, ignoring the complex challenges faced in different parts of the UK. Instead, this data can be used by local communities to see how differently their areas are doing compared with their ‘scores’ in previous years.

It’s not just the geographic differences, but personal characteristics of people behind the results. We see differences between those in good health and those reporting poor health, between different age groups and between those with differing educational and economic backgrounds, for example.

People tell us that they use our well-being measures in a range of ways – from informing policy, for research and service development. In particular, one charity told us they use them to compare quality of life for blind and partially sighted people with the general population to identify the equality gaps, while another to help understand the situation of older people in developing their support offer. Our data can help decision makers navigate and investigate these changes and show what is important to people.

Children and young people

To date, we’ve focused on what matters to adults. So I’m excited that next year, we’ll be updating our research into children and young people, as they grow up in an environment that differs from our own childhood experiences.

Exploring national well-being is only part of ONS’s work, but an area that is crucially important and sometimes overlooked in favour of economic measures.  Our mission is to provide statistics that give a range of timely indicators on how society as a whole is doing.

Image of Tim Vizard

Tim Vizard is from the Policy Evidence and Analysis Team at the ONS