Subjective well-being

11 February 2020

Subjective well-being refers to an individual’s own assessment of their quality of life and their situation. Promoting the well-being of its citizens is a key goal for the EU and has gained prominence in the social policy agenda in the last decade. This includes differences or inequalities in health. 

To capture the complexities around modern societies, the European Commission’s Beyond GDP initiative aims to measure progress, true wealth and well-being by developing indicators that complement GDP figures but are more inclusive of environmental and social aspects of progress. Moreover, Eurostat’s quality of life indicators provide recent statistics on various dimensions of quality of life in the EU, also complementing the traditionally used indicator of GDP. 

The Commission also launched the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) in 2003, subsequently implementing a dedicated module in 2013 that contained 18 indicators on subjective well-being. This module is expected to be repeated every six years. 

The European Framework for Action on Mental Health and Well-being, co-funded by the Commission, supports the EU Member States in reviewing their policies and sharing experiences in improving policy efficiency and effectiveness.

In a global context, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has produced guidelines on the collection and use of measures of subjective well-being. 

Eurofound's work

Eurofound’s European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) has a uniquely large set of indicators of subjective well-being (26 indicators in the 2016 survey). Two global measures are typically included to capture overall subjective well-being: 

  • life satisfaction, which allows people to provide an overall evaluation of their life
  • overall happiness, which enables people to give a more emotional assessment of how they feel. 

Key contributions

Eurofound launched its first EQLS in 2003, having completed its fourth survey in 2016. The conceptual framework used in the EQLS is generally in line with the OECD guidelines. It addresses subjective well-being by means of three groups of indicators: 

  • evaluative well-being – life satisfaction and satisfaction with domains of life
  • positive and negative affect – happiness, vitality, feeling calm, feeling cheerful, feeling depressed
  • eudaimonic well-being – optimism, autonomy, sense of purpose, having time to enjoy life and resilience. 

EQLS findings show that the strongest determinants of higher life satisfaction and happiness are having a sense of purpose, followed by optimism about one’s future and autonomy.

Health is another key determinant of well-being. EQLS data shed light on changes in self-reported health for the EU population as a whole and in relation to groups of particular concern. With regard to mental health and well-being, the EQLS asks several questions that can be used to construct the WHO Mental Well-being Index (WHO-5).

In 2016, two items that measure resilience were added to capture the perceived capacity to deal with problems and the time it takes to bounce back. Perceived resilience correlates positively with mental well-being variables.

    Data and resources

    Ongoing work

    • Exploring wealth and transmission of (dis-) advantage in the context of social mobility, with the possibility to inform policymakers about equality of opportunity and fairness in society 
    • Report to examine fairness and optimism for the future and their relationship to people’s perceptions and realities (objective indicators of social and economic situation and living standards)

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