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


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.

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  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.


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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).

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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

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