Societal wellbeing

Posted on: 15/02/2022

Societal wellbeing

This article is one of a series of amended extracts from Understanding Wellbeing (2011), edited by the late Anneyce Knight and the late Allan McNaught. There will continue to be developments in the field of wellbeing study, and the book and this material were published in pre-Covid times. Nevertheless, we felt it was worth publishing in this format, as a small contribution to the field.

Other articles in this series consider:

A definitional framework for wellbeing

Individual wellbeing

Family wellbeing

Community wellbeing

The promotion of wellbeing at a societal level is one of the great political, social and economic challenges of our time. Many governments and inter-governmental organisations are now focused on its measurement and enhancement. ‘GDP has increasingly become used as a measure of societal wellbeing and changes in the structure of the economy and our society have made it an increasingly poor one’ (Stiglitz, 2002). He recommends including other factors, such as sustainability and education. Others have also long recognised that GDP is an inadequate measure to assess societal wellbeing, and there have been numerous suggestions of what else to count to make it a more reliable yardstick. De Leon and Boris (2010) recommended the inclusion of the following estimates in GDP:

  1. unpaid and paid care work;
  2. levels of child poverty and deprivation;
  3. impact of discrimination against social minorities;
  4. impact of gender disparities.

Societal wellbeing has been defined as:

“A positive, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It arises not only from the action of individuals, but from a host of collective goods and relationships with other people. It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, and that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society. It is enhanced by conditions that include supportive personal relationships, involvement in empowered communities, good health, financial security, rewarding employment and a healthy and attractive environment.” (Skilton, 2009, p. 9)

Skilton disaggregates wellbeing into the following components:

  • involvement in empowered communities;
  • supportive personal relationships;
  • good health;
  • financial security;
  • rewarding employment; and a
  • healthy and attractive environment.

Skilton identifies nine UK wellbeing indices, from a range of sources, as well as 19 datasets that measure aspects of wellbeing, ranging from the Health Survey for England through the British Crime Survey to the British Social Attitudes Survey. We can get a better feel of this document’s approach by looking at one area, ‘Involvement in empowered communities’, that it defines as follows:

An empowered community can primarily be based on the level of self-sufficiency, which may then lead to a greater sense of control over life. Self-sufficiency allows people to lead independent lives without the need to require any outside aid, support, or interaction, for survival. This includes having access to key services. (Skilton, 2009, p. 9)

The report then analyses the perceived difficulty of people in the community in accessing key services between 1997/8 and 2006/7. These key services were defined as ‘corner shop/supermarket, post office, doctor/hospital’. The report showed that non-car owners experience significant and constant disadvantage compared with car owners. Throughout the report, there are similar attempts to determine how societal wellbeing should and could be measured.

An example of national accounts of wellbeing for the UK was published by the New Economics Foundation (2009). Their ‘Framework for National Accounts of Wellbeing’ is based on capturing the following:

  • Understanding subjective wellbeing as a multifaceted, dynamic combination of different factors has important implications for the way in which it is measured. This requires indicators which look beyond single-item questions and capture more than simply life satisfaction.
  • Personal and social dimensions. Measurement of the social dimension of wellbeing (in terms of individuals’ subjective reports about how they feel they relate to others).
  • Feelings, functioning and psychological resources. Measurement of how well people are doing, in terms of their functioning and the realisation of their potential. Psychological resources, such as resilience, should also be included in any national accounts framework and reflect growing recognition of ‘mental capital’ as a key component of wellbeing.

Application of the New Economics Foundation’s National Accounts of Wellbeing reveals:

  • Countries with high levels of personal wellbeing do not necessarily have high levels of social wellbeing, and vice versa. Denmark and Ukraine display unusual stability in coming at the very top and very bottom, respectively, of rankings based on both personal and social wellbeing scores.
  • Scandinavian countries are the top performers on overall wellbeing, while Central and Eastern European countries have the lowest wellbeing.
  • Despite its relative economic success at the time the survey data were collected, this summary measure nevertheless reveals the UK’s distinctly middling performance on wellbeing overall.
  • Levels of wellbeing inequality vary considerably between nations.
  • Within the UK, clear differences emerged in the character of people’s wellbeing between population groups. The Wellbeing Profiles of the youngest and oldest age groups in the UK reveal some striking differences in their wellbeing composition and levels, with particular disparity for the trust and belonging component, with a very low score for the youngest age group and a high score for the oldest.

This approach to societal wellbeing sees it very much as the result of gradualism and working within the status quo. Other approaches raise more fundamental questions about the balance of resources and the aims and outcomes of social and economic policies. Stiglitz has remarked that:

While we all speak passionately about the importance of democratic principles, we also recognize that our democracies are imperfect, and that some groups’ voices are heard more loudly than others. In the arena of international economic policy, the voices of commercial and financial interests are heard far more loudly than those of labour and consumer interests. As just noted, they have tried to convince others, with remarkable success, that there is no conflict of interests – which means that there are no trade-offs. The consequences speak for themselves: the growing dissatisfaction with the reform policies is partly a consequence of the fact that so many have actually been made worse off. In Mexico, for instance, the incomes of the poorest 30 per cent of the population have actually declined over the past 16 years. All of the income gains (reflected in increases in average GDP per capita) have occurred among the richest 30 per cent, and especially among the richest 10 per cent. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, no country in Latin America for which data on income distribution are available can boast a decline in income inequality during the

1990s. (Stiglitz, 2002, p. 25)

Measuring social capital

In trying to develop ways of measuring social capital and its contribution to societal wellbeing, the Australian National Bureau of Statistics did not define the latter, but saw the purpose of their endeavours as the creation of ‘a more just and resilient societal system’ (Australian National Bureau of Statistics, 2002, p. 8).

Speaking at ‘Wellbeing for all? Achieving wellbeing in an unequal world’ (2010), the well-known epidemiologist Professor Richard Wilkinson said that in developed nations the degree of inequality – the size of the difference between the incomes of the rich and the poor – correlates with prevalence of a wide range of social and health problems. This includes life expectancy, which is not related to average incomes, but to income differences. He argued that greater social equality is the most important factor in ensuring people’s wellbeing. Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor are bad for everyone in them, including the well-off. While greater equality yields the greatest benefits for the poor, the benefits extend to the majority of the population.

The Human Development Index

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) is another possible measure of societal wellbeing. The first Human Development Report introduced a new way of measuring development by combining indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment and income into a composite human development index, the HDI.

Gross National Happiness

The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was developed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He used the phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously and the Centre for Bhutan Studies, under the leadership of Karma Uru, developed a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population’s general level of wellbeing. The Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock had a major role in the design of the instrument, and he uses (what he calls) a ‘de-Bhutanized’ version of the survey in his work in Victoria, British Columbia.

Further reading

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Human Development Index are available here. The UNDP is concerned with sustainable development and the HDI was created as a way of measuring the range of human and societal capabilities. The annual Human Development Report is one of the cardinal documents on international human development, and is notable for its ranking of societies through the use of the HDI.

New Economics Foundation (NEF)

The NEF is an independent think-and-do tank that aims to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environmental and social issues.

Gross National Happiness (GNH). Information about GNH is available at the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies and the GNH Centre Bhutan. The GNH Centre has sponsored the development of policy screening tools that can be used to examine the potential impacts of projects or programmes on GNH.


Australian National Bureau of Statistics (2002) Discussion paper: social capital and social wellbeing. Canberra: Australian National Bureau of Statistics

De Leon, E. and Boris, E. (2010) The State of Society: measuring economic success and human well-being. Washington, DC: Urban Institute

New Economics Foundation (NEF) (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet. London: NEF

Skilton, L. (2009) Working Paper: Measuring Societal Wellbeing in the UK. Office for National Statistics.

Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) ‘Employment, social justice and societal well-being’. International Labour Review, 141(1–2): 9–29