Reporting change over time and differences between groups

National levels of subjective well-being are difficult to interpret when examined in isolation. External reference points are essential in order to understand whether a mean life satisfaction score of 7.2 is “good”, or not. In order to interpret current observations of subjective well-being, two broad comparisons are likely to be of interest to data users:

  • 1) comparisons between current and previous levels of subjective well-being; and
  • 2) comparisons between different countries, particularly those regarded as peers in terms of their overall levels of development.

A third type of comparison involves examining group differences within a country. Identifying groups of individuals who report lower or higher subjective well-being, or whose well-being is changing at a faster or slower rate over time, is an essential use of national statistics. Defining reference groups for such comparisons is also important - and by providing information about the level of subjective well-being across the whole population, national statistics provide a baseline against which population sub-groups can be compared. Further breakdowns in national statistics (such as by age, gender, education, region, occupation, socio-economic and employment status, health status, etc.) can also enhance their usefulness. Understanding what characterises communities at both high and low ends of the subjective well-being spectrum will be important for policy users seeking both to reduce extreme suffering and to better understand how high levels of subjective well-being can be achieved.

Examining whether gaps in subjective well-being between groups within society are growing or shrinking is also important. Central and local governments, the wider public sector, researchers and voluntary organisations may be particularly interested in inequalities in subjective well-being in order to assist the identification of vulnerable groups who may benefit from specific interventions.

Comparisons over time and between groups, both within and across countries, can also signal where to look in terms of the potential drivers of subjective well-being. For example, if regional differences in subjective well-being are identified, looking at other variables which differ across regions can have implications for better understanding what matters for subjective well-being. This will be of interest to government and researchers, but also to members of the public and the organisations that they work for.

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