Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Measuring Progress and Well-Being: A Comparative Review of Indicators

Abstract

We provide a new database sampling well-being and progress indicators implemented since the 1970s at all geographic scales. Starting from an empirical assessment, we describe and quantify trends in the institutional basis, methodology, and content of indicators which are intended to capture the broadest conceptions of human social progress. We pay special attention to the roles of sustainability and subjective well-being in these efforts, and find that certain types of indicators are more successful in terms of transparency, accountability, as well as longevity. Our taxonomy encompasses money-denominated accounts of “progress”, unaggregated collections of indicators, indices, and measures oriented around subjective well-being. We find that a most promising innovation is the indices whose weights are accountable to empirical data, in particular through models of subjective well-being. We conclude by amplifying others’ advocacy for the appropriate separation of current well-being from environmental indicators, and for the avoidance of aggregation except where it is meaningful.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Notes

  1. 1.

    This is available online at http://wellbeing.research.mcgill.ca/WB-indicator-database-2017.

  2. 2.

    These shifts may be said to be not entirely underlain by substance. Land and Michalos (2016) state that the developers of the Canadian Index of Well-Being regard the term well-being to be “roughly synonymous with overall quality of life”. Similarly, Thailand and Bhutan both use the word happiness in the titles of recent indices which have not much more to do with psychological affect than much earlier analogues (Barameechai 2007; Centre for Bhutan Studies 2015). In addition, even within the narrower context of SWB, the word happiness is used as a non-threatening and felicitous informal synonym for subjective well-being, and even life satisfaction in particular, in addition to its narrower specialist meaning as a domain of affect.

  3. 3.

    These statistics are based on a search for “life satisfaction” or “happiness” or “subjective well-being” in all fields in EconLit, the same economics journal index referenced by Kahneman and Krueger (2006).

  4. 4.

    Especially for local initiatives, our survey database is not intended to be exhaustive. The Jacksonville organization claims its efforts are reflected in over 1000 local community indicators worldwide. One effort to collect links to the growing set of local well-being measurement initiatives is shared at http://www.communityindicators.net/projects.

  5. 5.

    That is, our database may under represent failed indicator efforts since they no longer have any visibility and were therefore overlooked during our search.

  6. 6.

    These are “single indicators” and “component sets” in the language of Shackman et al. (2005). The second has also been called a dashboard. The terminology can sometimes be awkward, as we use “indicators” and “measures” to include everything, while “sets of indicators,” “unaggregated indicators”, or “dashboards” all refer to one specific category in our database.

  7. 7.

    Other discussions of some of the advantages and disadvantages of aggregation to indices include Michalos et al. (2011).

  8. 8.

    This idea, of course, fallaciously assumes that the GDP is meant to measure desirable things, while it can instead be considered an amoral accounting figure. We consider the meaning of augmented GDPs to be similarly obscure.

  9. 9.

    While one percentage may appear commensurable with every other percentage because they are both unitless, there is no meaningful sense in which a fractional increase in literacy should be added to a fractional increase in waste diversion from landfills, for instance.

  10. 10.

    Usually the weights are superficially all equal, but the effective weighting depends on the units used or rescaling choice for each component before aggregation.

  11. 11.

    This is worded: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible. If the top step is 10 and the bottom step is 0, on which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?” Helliwell et al. (2010) found that averages of this question had a closely similar pattern of explanatory factors as the more standard life satisfaction question (given below, on page 18) recommended for national statistical agencies (Stone and Mackie 2014; OECD 2013).

  12. 12.

    SWL refers to the single specific question given on page 18, while the similar acronym SWB encompasses all subjective well-being measures, including the cognitive ones like SWL as well as those which assess affective states.

  13. 13.

    The ONS ended up with several measures of subjective well-being from this process, including the cognitive life satisfaction question, as well as emotional states of happiness and anxiety. Because O’Donnell and Oswald (2015) propose to privilege the SWB measures in an overall index of well-being for the use of policy makers, they suggest deriving weights for the various SWB questions using another national survey, in which respondents suggest how important each emotion is. These would result in democratically-chosen weights. However, in describing life satisfaction as an “emotion” and putting multiple SWB measures on the same footing, these authors ignore the physiological distinction between a cognitive (cerebral), all-encompassing evaluative task and the task of querying (mid-brain) emotional states. See OECD (2013) for why life satisfaction should be privileged, and Kahneman and Krueger (2006) for a contrary view, in which it should be ignored in favour of emotions.

  14. 14.

    Moreover, some indicator projects have quite pointedly rejected this approach. Michalos et al. (2011, pp. 17–18) claim that SWB does not capture well-being broadly enough, and that using it for validation is “not feasible” for the CIW. These authors include “the state of the natural environment,…consumption and production patterns, the earth’s carrying capacity,…other people’s wars…” in their conception of “well-being”. We argue below that building such broad collections of indicators confuses two incommensurable objectives, and inevitably ends up in unaccountable and opaque metrics. Other prominent critiques of SWB include Sen’s (1999) objection that a grumbling rich man may report being happier than a contented peasant. However, newer evidence from global SWB data mitigates some of these concerns. Even crudely, it can be noticed that cognitive evaluations of life from over 150 countries, now published nearly annually in the World Happiness Reports, show enormous variation which is not consistent with fears about an overwhelming role for aspirations and adaptation. The newer understanding is reflected by the more recent stance of Sen and his coauthors (Stiglitz et al. 2009).

  15. 15.

    In Sect. 5.1, we compare this approach with using SWL itself as a sole indicator.

  16. 16.

    The assault data come from a survey question on the Gallup World Poll. Risks and perceived impacts may vary considerably with social status, as well as type of assault, as OECD itself recognizes on the Better Life Index site.

  17. 17.

    Cummins and coauthors have used culture to explain some differences in life satisfaction responses, and this important question merits continued investigation. Various other influences on SWB have been identified and appear not to pose a problem for typical uses of the data. For instance, cultural biases in average response would not (necessarily) affect estimated coefficents in models of SWL within a population. Below, I propose the use of “synthetic” SWL measures, which are like an objective projection of SWL, and therefore especially robust for comparison across countries and cultures.

  18. 18.

    Plenty of evidence for this exists, and gives rise to such policies as forced or incentivised savings.

  19. 19.

    Some other countries have related high-profile political initiatives with related branding, such as the United Arab Emirates, which appointed a Minister for Happiness.

  20. 20.

    This is unsatisfactory in light of a direct concern for non-human well-being, which is likely to become more explicit through law and policy over time. However, we would argue that these other forms of welfare should also stand apart, possibly next to human well-being, rather than being incorporated into broad sets of measures of the sustainability of environmental supports and systems. There is a range of philosophical approaches to such questions, but our criteria, above, are largely practical.

References

  1. Alkire, S., & Foster, J. (2011). Counting and multidimensional poverty measurement. Journal of Public Economics, 95(7–8), 476–487. ISSN: 0047-2727. doi: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2010.11.006.

  2. Anielski, M (2001). The Alberta GPI blueprint: The genuine progress indicator (GPI) sustainable well-being accounting system. Technical report, pp. 1–126.

  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Measures of Australia Progress, 2013: What is MAP. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/1370.0main+features672013. Visited on 04/09/2014.

  4. Australian Unity. (2010). Wellbeing. Technical report.

  5. Barameechai, J. (2007). The green and happiness index. In: International conference on happiness and public policy, Bangkok, pp. 18–19.

  6. BCStats. (2014). BC Regional Socio-Economic Profiles & Indices. http://www.bcstats.gov.bc.ca/StatisticsBySubject/SocialStatistics/SocioEconomicProfilesIndices.aspx. Visited on 03/29/2014.

  7. Bentham, J. (1789). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Oxford: Blackwell (Reprinted 1948).

  8. Bergheim, S. (2010). The Progress Index.

  9. Bergheim, S. (2015). Ten steps to success quality of life processesA manual. Technical report. Zentrum für gesellschaftlichen Fortschritt.

  10. Bernanke, B. S. (2010). The economics of happiness. www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/ bernanke20100508a.htm (visited on 12/2011).

  11. Boarini, R., & d’Ercole, M. M. (2013). Going beyond GDP: An OECD perspective. Fiscal Studies, 34(3), 289–314.

  12. Böhringer, C., & Jochem, P. E. P. (2007). Measuring the immeasurable—A survey of sustainability indices. Ecological Economics, 63(1):1–8. ISSN: 0921-8009. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.03.008.

  13. Bridgman, B., et al. (2012). Accounting for household production in the national accounts, 1965–2010. Survey of Current Business, 92(5), 23–36.

  14. Brundtland, G et al. (1987). Our common future. Brundtland report.

  15. Cameron D (2010). A transcript of a speech given by the Prime Minister on wellbeing on 25 November. http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/pm-speech-on-well-being. Visited on 12/2011.

  16. Central Statistics Office. (2012). Measuring Ireland Progress: 2011. Technical report, pp. 1–102.

  17. Centre for Bhutan Studies. (2015). Gross National Happiness Index explained in detail. http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/docs/GNH/PDFs/Sabina_Alkire_method.pdf. Visited on 03/08/2015.

  18. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Health related quality of life: About us. http://www.cdc. gov/hrqol/about.htm. Visited on 05/15/2015.

  19. Cobb, C. W. (1989). In H. E. Daly, & J. B. Cobb (eds.). The index for sustainable economic welfare. pp. 401–57.

  20. Community Foundations of Canada (2013). Vital signs. http://www.vitalsignscanada.ca/en/about. Visited on 05/11/2014.

  21. Cooke, M. (2005). The First Nations Community Well-Being Index (CWB): A conceptual review. Technical report, Indian Affairs and Northern Development, pp. 1–24.

  22. Coyle, D. (2015). GDP: A brief but affectionate history. Princeton University Press. ISBN: 9781400873630.

  23. Daudey, R. B. P. C. E., & Müller S. H. J. (2012). L’èvolution du bien-être en France depuis 30 ans.

  24. Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs. (2013). Sustainable development indicators. Technical report, pp. 1–99.

  25. Dolan, P., Layard, R., & Metcalfe, R. (2011). Measuring subjective well-being for public policy. Office for National Statistics paper.

  26. Employment and Social Development Canada (2014). Indicators of well-being in Canada: About this site. http://www4.hrsdc.gc.ca/c.4nt.2nt@-eng.jsp?cid=14%5C#header_1. Visited on 05/11/2014.

  27. European Statistical System. (2012). Measuring progress, well-being and sustainable development: The response of the European Statistical System to the report of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission and to the ‘GDP and beyond’ Communication of the European Commission. Technical report, pp. 1–4. doi: 10.2785/21299.

  28. Exton, C., Smith, C., & Vandendriessche, D. (2015). Comparing Happiness across the World: Does Culture Matter?” OECD Statistics Working Papers. doi: 10.1787/5jrqppzd9bs2-en.

  29. Federation of Canadian Municipalities. (2012). Quality of life reporting system: About the program. http://www.fcm.ca/home/programs/quality-of-life-reporting-system/about-the-program.htm. Visited on 05/11/2014.

  30. Fleurbaey, M., & Blanchet, D. (2013). Beyond GDP: Measuring welfare and assessing sustainability. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780199344154.

  31. Gallup-Healthways. (2014). State of American Well-Being: 2013 state, community and congressional district ansalysis. Technical report, pp. 1–38.

  32. GPI Atlantic. (2007). Community GPI. http://gpiatlantic.org/community.htm. Visited on 03/08/2015.

  33. Hagerty, M., et al. (2001). Quality of Life Indexes for National Policy: Review and agenda for research. Social Indicators Research, 55(1), 1–96. ISSN: 0303-8300. doi: 10.1023/A:1010811312332.

  34. Hall, J., Barrington-Leigh, C., & Helliwell, J. (2011). Cutting through the clutter: searching for an over-arching measure of well-being. CESifo DICE Report, 8(4), 8–12.

  35. Hall, J., & Rickard, L. (2013). People, progress and participation: How initiatives measuring social progress yield benefits beyond better metrics. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung.

  36. Helliwell, J., Huang, H., & Wang, S. (2015). The geography of world happiness. In: world happiness report 2015. In J. Helliwell, R. Layard, & J. Sachs (Eds.), Sustainable development solutions network (chap. 2, pp. 12–41).

  37. Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2012). World happiness report. http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2012/.

  38. Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2013). World happiness report 2013. http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2013/.

  39. Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2015). World Happiness Report 2015. http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2015/.

  40. Helliwell, J., & Wang, S. (2013). World happiness: Trends, explanations, and distribution. In Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (Eds.), World happiness report 2013. Sustainable development solutions network (chap. 2, pp. 58–37).

  41. Helliwell, J. F., et al. (2010). International evidence on the social context of well-being. In E. Diener, J. F. Helliwell, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), International differences in well-being (pp. 213–229). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  42. Hicks, P. (2012). A framework for citizen-centred social statistics and analysis. Queen’s University School of Public Policy, Working Paper 48.

  43. Human Development Report Office. (2013). Human development report 2013: Technical notes. Technical report, pp. 1–8.

  44. Institute for Sustainable Development, United Way of Winnipeg. (2013). About peg. http://www.mypeg.ca/about. visited on 05/10/2014.

  45. International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change. (2012). Inclusive wealth report: Policy recommendations. http://www.ihdp.unu.edu/article/read/iwr-policy.

  46. Jacksonville Community Council Inc. (2014). Jacksonville quality of life indicators. http://www.jcci.org/#! indicators/c1e39. Visited on 03/08/2015.

  47. Kahneman, D., & Krueger, A. B. (2006). Developments in the measurement of subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 3–24.

  48. Kasparian, J., & Rolland, A. (2012). OECD’s “Better Life Index”: Can any country be well ranked? Social Applied Statistics, 1–8.

  49. Kennedy, R. F. (1968). Speech on 18 March 1968 at the University of Kansas. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Robert-F-Kennedy-at-theUniversity-of-Kansas-March-18-1968.aspx. Visited on 03/09/2015.

  50. Kroll, C. (2015). Sustainable development goals: Are the rich countries ready? Spotlight Europe.

  51. Land, K. C., & Michalos, A. C. (2016). Fifty years after the social indicators movement: Has the promise been fulfilled? An assessment and an agenda for the future. (this issue).

  52. Lau, A., Cummins, R., & Mcpherson, W. (2005). An investigation into the cross-cultural equivalence of the Personal Wellbeing Index. Social Indicators Research, 72(3), 403–430. ISSN: 03038300.

  53. Lind, N. (2014). Legatum Prosperity Index. In: Encyclopedia of quality of life and well-being research (pp. 3529–3530). Springer.

  54. Maryland Department of Natural Resources. (2012). Maryland genuine progress indicator. http://www.dnr. maryland.gov/mdgpi/. Visited on 03/09/2016.

  55. Michalos, A., et al. (2011). Technical report 1.0. Technical report, The Canadian Index of Wellbeing and University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON.

  56. Ministry of Social Development. (2010). 2010 The social report: Social indicators for New Zealand. Technical report.

  57. Mizobuchi, H. (2014). Measuring world better life frontier: a composite indicator for OECD better life index. Social Indicators Research, 118(3), 987–1007.

  58. Neumayer, E (1999). The ISEW—not an Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. Social Indicators Research, 48(1), 77–101. ISSN: 0303-8300. doi: 10.1023/A:1006914023227.

  59. New Economics Foundation. (2009). NAW-About. http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org/. Visited on 06/03/2014.

  60. New Economics Foundation (2012). The Happy Planet Index: 2012 report. Technical report.

  61. Noll, H.-H. (2004). Social indicators and quality of life research: Background, achievements and current trends. In N. Genov (Ed.), Advances in sociological knowledge (pp. 151–181). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. ISBN: 978-3-8100-4012-1. doi: 10.1007/978-3-663-09215-5_7.

  62. O’Donnell, G., & Oswald, A. J. (2015). National well-being policy and a weighted approach to human feelings. Ecological Economics, 120, 59–70. ISSN: 0921-8009. doi: 10.1016/j. ecolecon.2015.09.021.

  63. OECD. (2011). How’s Life? Measuring well-being. Technical report, pp. 1–286. doi: 10.1787/9789264121164-en.

  64. OECD. (2013). OECD guidelines on measuring subjective well-being.

  65. OECD. (2015). How’s life? Measuring well-being. OECD Publishing.

  66. OECD (2016a). Better life initiative: Measuring well-being and progress. http://www.oecd.org/progress (visited on 03/2016).

  67. OECD. (2016b). http://oecdbetterlifeindex.org/.

  68. OECD Better Life Initiative. (2014). Executive summary. Technical report.

  69. Office for National Statistics. (2012). Measuring national well-being: Report on consultation responses on proposed domains and measures. Technical report, pp. 1–40.

  70. Office for National Statistics. (2013). Wellbeing policy and analysis: An update of wellbeing work across whitehall. Technical report, pp. 1–40.

  71. Osberg, L., & Sharpe, A. (2010). Beyond GDP: Measuring economic well-being in canada and the provinces, 19812010. Technical report, Centre for the Study of Living Standards, pp. 1–85.

  72. Perry, B. (2009). Non-income measures of material wellbeing and hardship: First results from the 2008 New Zealand Living Standards Survey, with international comparisons. Technical report, New Zealand Ministry of Social Development, pp. 1–76.

  73. Porter, M. E., Stern. S., & Green, M. (2014). Social Progress Index 2014. Technical report.

  74. Redefining Progress. (2014). About redefining progress. http://rprogress.org/about_us/about_us.htm. Visited on 07/15/2014.

  75. Sen, A. K. (1997). Choice, welfare and measurement. Oxford: Harvard University Press.

  76. Sen, A. K. (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  77. Shackman, G., Liu, Y.-L., & Wang, X. (2005). Measuring a quality of life using free and public domain data. Social Research Update, 47.

  78. Sharpe, A., & Smith, J. (2005). Measuring the impact of research on well-being: A survey of indicators of well-being. Technical report, Centre for the Study of Living Standards, pp. 1–119.

  79. Social Progress Imperative. (2014). Social Progress Indexmethodology. http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/data/spi/methodology. Visited on 07/25/2014.

  80. Social Progress Index. (2014). Social progress imperative. http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/data/spi. Visited on 03/08/2014.

  81. Social Weather Stations. (2015). Philippines social weather report. http://www.sws.org.ph/.

  82. Statistics Finland. (2014). Well-being indicators. http://www.findikaattori.fi/en/hyvinvointi. Visited on 07/18/2014.

  83. Stern, N. H. (2006). Stern review on the economics of climate change. U.K. Treasury.

  84. Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J.-P. (2009). Report by the Commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress. Paris: Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

  85. Stone, A. A., Mackie, C., et al. (2014). Subjective well-being: Measuring happiness, suffering, and other dimensions of experience. National Academies Press.

  86. Talberth, J., Cobb, C., & Slattery, N. (2006). The genuine progress indicator. Technical report.

  87. The Boston Foundation. (2014). The Boston Indicators Project: About the project. http://www.bostonindicators.org/about. Visited on 05/11/2014.

  88. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing. (2014a). About the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. https://uwaterloo.ca/ canadian-index-wellbeing/about-canadian-index-wellbeing. Visited on 05/11/2014.

  89. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing. (2014b). Domains. https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/our-products/domains. Visited on 05/11/2014.

  90. The Economist Intelligence Unit. (2005). The Economist Intelligence Unit Quality-of-Life index. The Economist.

  91. The Netherlands Institute for Social Research. (2015). Life situation Index. http://www.scp.nl/english/leefsituatie/.

  92. Treasury Board of Canada. (2010). Canada’s performance: Annual report to parliament 200910. Technical report Government of Canada, pp. 1–105.

  93. UK Office of National Statistics. (2011). National Statistician’s reflections on the National Debate on Measuring National Well-being. www.ons.gov.uk. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/userguidance/well-being/wellbeing-knowledge-bank/understanding-wellbeing/measuring-what-matters-national-statistician-s-reflections-on-the-national-debate-on-measuring-national-wellbeing.pdf. Visited on 12/2011.

  94. UNEP, UNU-IHDP. (2015). Inclusive Wealth Report 2012. https://www.ihdp.unu.edu/article/read/iwr. Visited on 03/08/2015.

  95. United Nations (2015). Inclusive Wealth Report 2012. https://www.ihdp.unu.edu/article/read/iwr. Visited on 03/08/2015.

  96. United Nations Development Programme (2015). Human Development Index. http://hdr.undp.org/en/ content/human-development-index-hdi. Visited on 03/09/2015.

  97. Ura, K et al. (2012). An Extensive Analysis of GNH Index. Technical report, Centre for Bhutan Studies, Under the Patronage of His Majesty the King, pp. 1–148.

  98. Veenhoven, R. (1996). Happy life-expectancy. Social Indicators Research, 39(1), 1–58.

  99. World Health Organization. (2014). WHO Quality of Life-BREF. http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/ research_tools/whoqolbref/en/. Visited on 05/15/2014.

  100. Young, R. (2005a). An overview: Oregon Shines II and Oregon benchmarks. Technical report, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina.

  101. Young, R. (2005b). An overview: Oregon Shines II and Oregon benchmarks. Technical report, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina.

Download references

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Lorrie Herbault, Katie Keys, and Julianne Skarha for excellent research assistance; to Michael Abramson, Stefan Bergheim, Jon Hall, John Helliwell, and Raynald L´etourneau for helpful discussions; and for funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Société et culture. Funding was provided by SSHRC (Grant No. 435-2016-0531) and FQRSC (Grant No. 166682).

Author information

Correspondence to Christopher Barrington-Leigh.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Barrington-Leigh, C., Escande, A. Measuring Progress and Well-Being: A Comparative Review of Indicators. Soc Indic Res 135, 893–925 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-016-1505-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Well-being
  • Progress
  • Quality of life
  • Subjective well-being
  • Life satisfaction
  • Sustainable development
  • Genuine progress