Well-being has long been a topic of interest in many disciplines (e.g., philosophy, psychology and economics). In public health, we are interested in how people attain well-being and its relation to health in different social and cultural contexts. Such efforts include investigating the practices and policies that can be designed to promote well-being and the extent to which these are informed by the latest science. This page provides information for policymakers and practitioners, including information on how different organizations and countries conceptualize, define, and measure well-being.
There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being. Well-being can refer to the experience of positive emotions and moods, good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose in life, or physically feeling healthy and full of energy (CDC, 2018). Well-being is central in the widely used definition of “health” by the World Health Organization (WHO): “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1946). Policymakers often use “well-being” interchangeably with other terms. Some definitions are focused and specific while others are diffuse. Below, we present selected definitions for well-being and related terms.
If you are interested in evaluating individual-level well-being, please see our measurement page.
Selected Definitions of Well-Being and Related Terms
- Well-being refers to living “long, happy, and meaningful lives.” [Wellbeing Economy Alliance. (n.d.). What is the happy planet index? Happy planet index. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://happyplanetindex.org/learn-about-the-happy-planet-index/]
- Well-being is defined as “the presence of the highest possible quality of life in its full breadth of expression focused on, but not necessarily exclusive to: good living standards, robust health, a sustainable environment, vital communities, an educated populace, balanced time use, high levels of democratic participation, and access to and participation in leisure and culture.” [Canadian Index of Wellbeing. (2016). How are Canadians Really Doing? The 2016 CIW National Report. Waterloo, ON: Canadian Index of Wellbeing and University of Waterloo. https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/sites/ca.canadian-index-wellbeing/files/uploads/files/c011676-nationalreport-ciw_final-s.pdf]
- Happiness, in this context, refers to well-being, high quality of life, and a flourishing existence. It is a state where many facets of one’s life are going well, including but not limited to feeling pleasure, having needs met, “being compassionate, realizing oneself, exhibiting virtue, and obtaining meaning in life.” [The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH. (2017). Happiness: Transforming the Development Landscape. Thimphu, Bhutan: The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH. http://www.bhutanstudies.org.bt/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Happiness-transform_Final_with-cover.pdf.]
- Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” [Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Books.]
- To flourish is to find fulfillment in our lives, accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks, and connecting with others at a deeper level—in essence, living the “good life.” [Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.]
- Flourishing includes mental and physical health, “but also encompass[es] happiness and life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.” [VanderWeele, T. J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(31), 8148–8156. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1702996114]
Well-Being in Practice
Different nations and organizations across the globe conceptualize, define, and measure well-being in various ways. For example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and the Development (OECD) uses a battery of indicators that includes assessments of life satisfaction and physical health as well as educational attainment, housing conditions and quality of residential environment, whereas Gallup focuses on one index: life . The table below shows tools (and links to relevant websites) that nations and organizations across the globe use to assess well-being, and the different dimensions that each emphasize.
|Life satisfaction||Income/ employment||Physical health||Purpose||Social & family relationships||Environment*||Education||Safety*|
|OECD Better Life Index||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Gallup World Poll||✓|
|Gallup-Share care Well-Being Index||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Human Development Index||✓||✓||✓|
|Happy Planet Index||✓||✓||✓|
|Canadian Index of Well-Being||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|European Social Survey||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|UK Annual Population Survey||✓||✓|
* “Environment” refers to quality of natural environment whereas “Safety” refers to murder and assault rates.
Find a more detailed description of each measure below:
OECD Better Life Index
Link: OECD Better Life Index
2020 OECD Report: OECD. (2020). How’s Life? 2020: Measuring Well-Being. OECD Publishing, https://www-oecd-ilibrary-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/economics/how-s-life/volume-/issue-_9870c393-en;jsessionid=PTH73S-IN-SjohSaYm_O5BRq.ip-10-240-5-106
Main construct measured: Population Well-Being by Country
Sub-constructs measured: Income and Wealth; Housing; Work and Job Quality; Health; Knowledge and Skills; Environmental Quality; Subjective Well-being [life satisfaction & Negative affect balance]; Safety; Work-Life Balance; Social Connections; Civic Engagement; Economic Capital; Natural Capital; Human Capital; Social Capital
The OECD Better Life Index measures well-being across countries, assessing 11 dimensions of current well-being and 4 different types of systemic resources that help to support well-being over time. The How’s Life? statistical report uses the Better Life Index data to document a wide range of well-being outcomes and how they vary over time, between population groups, and across countries. These are both part of the OECD Better Life Initiative, which aims to bring about OECD’s goal of “Better Policies for Better Lives.” Read more at: https://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/#/01111115110
Gallup World Poll
Link: Gallup World Poll
Gallup Global Well-Being Report: Gallup. (2010). Gallup Global Wellbeing: The Behavioral Economics of GDP Growth. Washington, D.C.: Gallup, Inc. https://news.gallup.com/poll/126965/gallup-global-wellbeing.aspx
Main construct measured: Well-Being
Sub-constructs measured: Experienced Anger Yesterday; Experienced Sadness Yesterday; Experienced Stress Yesterday; Experienced Worry Yesterday; Experienced Enjoyment Yesterday; Learn Something; Life Evaluation Index; Life in Five Years; Life Today; Negative Experience Index; Positive Experience Index; Smile or Laugh; Treated with Respect; Life Satisfaction
The Gallup World Poll monitors critical issues in societies worldwide, including personal safety, food and shelter, employment, well-being, and confidence in national institutions. Administered face to face or by telephone in over 140 languages, this survey collects data in more than 160 countries and regions. Read more at: https://www.gallup.com/178685/methodology-center.aspx
Gallup-Sharecare Community Well-Being Index
2020 Report: Sharecare. (2020). Sharecare Community Well-Being Index: 2020 Metro Area and County Report. https://wellbeingindex.sharecare.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/MCCS-8040-2020-MSA-County-Rankings-Report_v2.pdf
Main construct measured: US Community Well-being
Sub-constructs measured: Individual Health Factors [physical, community, purpose, social, financial] and Social Health Factors [healthcare access, food access, resource access, economic security, housing, and transportation]
The Gallup-Sharecare Community Well-Being Index brings together proven health risk factors into a single measure. By combining both individual and social factors, it uniquely measures well-being across every community in the United States, drawing from decades of clinical research, health care leadership, and health economics, and scoring each community on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more at: https://wellbeingindex.sharecare.com/
Human Development Index
Link: Human Development Index
2020 Human Development Report: United Nations Development Programme. (2020). The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Antrhopocene. http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2020
Main construct measured: Human Development Rating by Country
Sub-constructs measured: Life expectancy at birth; Expected years of schooling; Mean years of schooling; GNI per capita
The Human Development Index (HDI) is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: having a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and having a decent standard of living. The HDI is the geometric mean of normalized indices for each of the three dimensions and was created to emphasize that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country. Read more at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-index-hdi
Happy Planet Index
Link: Happy Planet Index
2019 Happy Planet Index Data: Wellbeing Economy Alliance. (2019). The 2019 Happy Planet Index. https://happyplanetindex.org/hpi/.
Main construct measured: Sustainable Well-Being by Country
Sub-constructs measured: Well-Being; Life Expectancy; Inequality of Outcomes; Ecological Footprint
Available subscales: Happy Planet Index uses Gallup World Poll Data [Well-being], UN data [life expectancy], and the global footprint network [ecological footprint]; note: for inequality of outcomes, the happy planet index uses the Gallup world poll data and UN data to see the distribution of well-being and life expectancy among different groups within countries
The Happy Planet Index is a measure of sustainable well-being, ranking countries by how efficiently they deliver long, happy lives using our planet’s limited environmental resources. Developed in 2006 to challenge the idea that countries should focus on continuous economic growth, it aims to help guide a shift in how countries understand national progress. Read more at: https://happyplanetindex.org/learn-about-the-happy-planet-index/
Link: BCG’s SEDA
2019 SEDA Assessment: Hrotko, J., Rueda-Sabater, E., Lang, N., Chin, V. (2019). Measure Well-Being to Improve It: The 2019 Sustainable Economic Development Assessment. Boston Consulting Group. https://boston-consulting-group-brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com/img-src/BCG-Measure-Well-Being-to-Improve-It-July-2019-R_tcm9-223637.pdf
Main construct measured: Well-Being by country [SEDA – Sustainable Economic Development Assessment and Citizen Well-Being]
Economics: income, economic stability, employment
Investments: education, health, infrastructure
Sustainability: environment & social inclusion [equality, strong civil society, sound governance]
BCG’s SEDA is a proprietary diagnostic tool built to objectively measure a country’s sustainable economic growth and citizen well-being. SEDA combines data on outcomes (such as health and education) with quasi-objective data (such as governance assessments). It also assesses how a country performs relative either to other countries or to individual peers or groups. SEDA offers a current snapshot of a country’s sustainable economic development assessment ranking as well as a measure of progress over time in order to complement purely economic indicators like GDP. Read more at: https://www.bcg.com/industries/public-sector/sustainable-economic-development-assessment
Canadian Index of Well-Being
2016 CIW National Report: Canadian Index of Wellbeing. (2016). How are Canadians Really Doing?
The 2016 CIW National Report. Waterloo, ON: Canadian Index of Wellbeing and University of Waterloo. https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/sites/ca.canadian-index-wellbeing/files/uploads/files/c011676-nationalreport-ciw_final-s.pdf
Main construct measured: Well-Being in Canada
Sub-constructs measured: Community Vitality; Democratic Engagement; Education; Environment; Healthy Populations; Leisure and Culture; Living Standards; Time Use
The Canadian Index of Well-Being (CIW) regularly reports on the quality of life of Canadians – nationally, provincially, and locally – advocates for social change, and places well-being at the heart of policy. The CIW aims to answer questions such as, Are communities in Canada thriving? and Is the economy growing at the cost of the environment, our health, and education? Read more at: https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/
European Social Survey
Link: European Social Survey
European Social Survey Toolkit: European Social Survey. (2015). Measuring and Reporting on Europeans’ Wellbeing: Findings from the European Social Survey. London: ESS ERIC. https://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/docs/findings/ESS1-6_measuring_and_reporting_on_europeans_wellbeing.pdf
Main construct measured: Well-Being in Europe
- Evaluative wellbeing, which covers individuals’ overall estimations of how well their life is going, including feeling satisfied with life and feeling happy overall.
- Emotional wellbeing, which includes positive day-to-day feelings such as happiness and enjoyment of life, and lack of negative feelings such as anxiety and depression.
- Functioning, which includes feelings of autonomy, competence, engagement, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, optimism and resilience.
- Vitality, which includes sleeping well, feeling energized and feeling able to face the challenges that life presents.
- Community wellbeing, which covers an individual’s feelings about the community in which they live, including trust in other people, feeling supported by members of the community, and experiencing a sense of neighborliness.
- Supportive relationships, which relates to individuals feeling that there are people in their lives who offer support, companionship, appreciation, and with whom they can discuss intimate matters.
The European Social Survey has been collecting methodologically robust cross-national data on well-being every two years since 2002, providing researchers and policymakers with a rich dataset with which to explore Europeans’ wellbeing. The survey includes summary measures of subjective well-being as part of its core questionnaire and more in-depth data on well-being as a part of thematic “rotating modules.” Read more at: http://www.esswellbeingmatters.org/measures/index.html
UK Annual Population Survey: Well-Being Measure
Personal well-being in the UK, quarterly: Office for National Statistics. (2021). Personal Well-Being in the UK, Quarterly: April 2011 to June 2021. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/personalwellbeingintheukquarterly/april2011tojune2021
Main construct measured: Well-Being in the UK
Sub-constructs measured: Life Satisfaction; Worthwhile; Happiness; Anxiety
The Annual Population Survey (APS) is a continuous household survey, covering the UK, with the aim of providing estimates between censuses of important social and labour market variables at a local area level. Apart from employment and unemployment, the topics covered in the survey include housing, ethnicity, religion, health and education. Data from this survey are used to assess personal well-being in the UK, and quarterly personal well-being reports are produced.
Read more about the Well-Being Measure at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/methodologies/personalwellbeingintheukqmi
Scales for Measuring Well-Being
Scholars have developed different scales or instruments to measure well-being. Though well-being is a broad and multi-dimensional construct, existing measures of well-being can be conceptualized as falling into one of two domains: subjective and objective measures. For details on well-being measurement and the use of well-being scales in research, please see our measurement page for researchers.