Well-being is broader than GDP alone

Photo description: Two women on the beach pushing an elderly man in a specially adapted wheelchair

Introduction

At the request of the House of Representatives, the Dutch government asked CBS in 2017 to develop a Monitor of Well-being.noot1 The aim of the Monitor is to provide politicians and society with information on well-being in the Netherlands, and on the state of affairs in relation to the SDGs. The work involves looking at well-being here and now, but also the effect of our current well-being on future generations and the rest of the world. CBS tries to do this as objectively as possible. To this end, in this Monitor we use a structured set of indicators and a description of the developments observed over time. It is up to politicians and society to use this information to make choices and set priorities where they think it is necessary.

The first Monitor of Well-being appeared in 2018. The second edition appeared in 2019 and also incorporated the monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Monitor has now been compiled for the third time for the Accountability debate in May. Based on the evaluations of the first two editions, the Monitor has been further improved on a number of points.

1.1Structure of the publication

This publication describes the development of well-being and the SDGs in the Netherlands in 2019. Therefore, the major impact on our economy and society of the coronavirus crisis and the measures taken in response are not discussed in this Monitor. This does not mean, however, that the concept of well-being is not of great significance when we consider the societal challenges that the Netherlands is currently facing. More than ever before, many factors that determine quality of life are being brought into decision-making procedures. This shows that the concept of well-being and the achievement of the SDGs are more relevant than ever.

Well-being is defined as our current quality of life and the extent to which it is achieved and maintained at the expense of the generations that will follow us or of people in other parts of the world. Chapter 2 of the Monitor describes the well-being of the inhabitants of the Netherlands ‘here and now’. It then outlines the consequences of our current level of well-being for the well-being of future generations in the Netherlands and for people in other countries. Chapter 3 adds a description of the way in which well-being ‘here and now’ is distributed over various population groups.

In Chapter 4, the focus is on the SDGs. The SDGs can be seen as internationally agreed objectives in the area of well-being and the sustainability of this well-being over the longer term. For each SDG, the Monitor looks at the efforts made to achieve that goal, the result achieved to date and the perception of the population in relation to the theme.

The current chapter will first consider the international recommendations and agreements that underlie the presentation of well-being and the SDGs in this Monitor. It will then extensively examine the definition used for well-being and the chosen subdivision of well-being into themes. Lastly, the chapter will explore the operationalisation of the Monitor for well-being: the actual measuring of the various themes linked to well-being and the SDGs based on selected sets of indicators.

1.2International recommendations

The Monitor has been compiled on the recommendation of the Temporary Committee on a Broad Definition of Welfare (Tijdelijke Kamercommissie Brede Welvaart), in accordance with the Conference of European Statisticians (CES) Recommendations on Measuring Sustainable Development (UNECE, 2014). The CES measuring system is an international guideline for measuring well-being and sustainability. Here, ‘sustainable’ means that well-being here and now is not at the expense of the well-being of later generations or other parts of the world.

Using the CES measuring system, statistical agencies have developed a scientifically substantiated ‘common language’ for defining and describing well-being. The CES measuring system is based on the report by Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi (2009) and the scientific insights on which it is based. The CES recommendations have now been accepted by around 65 countries, and statistical agencies and international organisations, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are busy implementing the recommendations around the world. The measurements of well-being based on the recommendations serve to support policy and the political sphere, but without giving direction.

The CES measuring system makes a distinction between well-being ‘here and now’ and well-being ‘later’ and ‘elsewhere’. The themes that are measured for ‘here and now’ are determined on the basis of national and international literature, and on surveys that ask citizens which topics they think are important for their quality of life. The question is also to what extent the pursuit of well-being in the Netherlands at this time has an impact on the well-being of future generations (‘later’) and of people elsewhere in the world (‘elsewhere’).

In this Monitor, the SDGs are integrated into this CES measuring system. The SDGs, which were drawn up by the UN in 2015 and signed by 193 countries (UN, 2015), are closely aligned to the pursuit of well-being. Underlying principles of the SDG agenda, such as the key principle of ‘leave no one behind’, the attention to our carbon footprint and the five Ps (people, planet, peace, prosperity & partnership), are all very relevant to our quality of life and ensuring that this quality of life is future-proof.

1.3Definition of well-being

The definition used in the Monitor is in line with common international definitions and is as follows:

Well-being is the quality of life here and now and the extent to which it is at the expense of the quality of life of future generations and/or of people elsewhere in the world.

Based on these three dimensions of well-being, three dashboards have been developed in this Monitor:

  • well-being ‘here and now’
  • well-being ‘later’
  • well-being ‘elsewhere’

Well-being ‘here and now’

Well-being ‘here and now’ concerns the personal characteristics of people and the quality of the environment in which they live. And more generally, it relates to their material well-being and general well-being, and how they perceive these. Precisely because well-being is a broad concept, a large number of themes are distinguished in the ‘here and now’ dashboard. Each theme then uses specific indicators with which we can create a picture of the developments within the theme.

The eight main themes related to well-being ‘here and now’ are:

  • Well-being. Personal well-being is central to reflections on well-being in a broad sense. Well-being is defined here as the way a person values their life and it is measured by means of the degree to which people are satisfied with their lives, to what extent they feel that they have control over their lives and the Personal Well-being Index. The Personal Well-being Index combines eight aspects of life to obtain one overarching figure.
  • Material well-being. Material well-being is made up of the disposable income that people have, together with the goods and services that they can purchase with that income and with which they can add fulfilment and colour to their lives.
  • Health. Health is a strongly decisive factor for quality of life. This includes both actual health and perceived health. A chronic illness, for example, restricts a person’s ability to participate fully and actively in society. Quality of life is also determined to a great extent by nutrition and whether a person has a healthy diet. One of the biggest problems in this context is currently that of an overweight population.
  • Labour and leisure time. For many people, well-being depends strongly on their having work that is appropriate and paid. On the other hand, leisure time also has a major influence on people’s perceived quality of life. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between work and leisure time. Many factors are important in this regard. For example, a good education is important for a person to have a good starting position on the job market.
  • Housing. Decent and affordable accommodation is one of our basic needs. The Dutch pay a substantial part of their income on housing.
  • Society. A society in which everyone can participate and in which people can trust one another and trust institutions such as the government and the judicial system is also part of well-being. The number and quality of social contacts and therefore the degree to which people participate in social life are important aspects of well-being.
  • Safety. Crime and perceived safety – or the lack of it – have a direct impact on the quality of citizens’ lives. Both the actual risk of being a victim and the feeling of safety or a lack of safety have an effect.
  • The environment. Clean air, clean drinking water and surface water, sufficient natural spaces and biodiversity that are also healthy, and soil that is not contaminated, are key basic needs. High concentrations of particulate matter in the air can lead to serious health problems, such as asthma and COPD. In a densely populated country such as the Netherlands, it is important for specific areas to be primarily left natural, so that flora and fauna can survive and thrive there.

Well-being ‘later’

Well-being ‘later’ refers to the resources that future generations need in order to achieve the same level of well-being as that of the current generation. The choices that the Dutch make collectively here and now naturally have consequences for the future generations in the Netherlands. All manner of resources are needed to maintain quality of life. These are referred to here as ‘capital’ and four kinds of capital are distinguished: economic, natural, human and social. The amount of capital per capita must at least stay the same if future generations want to achieve the same level of well-being.

The four kinds of capital for well-being ‘later’ are:

  • Economic capital. This comprises the machinery and tools, ICT, knowledge capital and infrastructure that are necessary for creating material well-being and generating economic growth. These are physical capital goods that are mainly important for the economic process. Knowledge capital, boosted among other things through investment in research and development, is also important in order for the Dutch economy to function. Debt is considered to be negative economic capital.
  • Natural capital. This refers not only to raw materials (for the Netherlands mainly fossil fuels such as crude oil and natural gas), but also to the quality of nature and the environment. This includes biodiversity (measured on the basis of land fauna and fresh water and marsh fauna, which are standards for species diversity), the general quality of the atmosphere (linked to COemissions) and the quality of soil, water and air locally. Capacity for renewable forms of energy is also included under natural capital, because this can counter the use of non-renewable energy sources as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Natural capital is a basic necessity for life.
  • Human capital. The factor ‘labour’ is central to this theme. It encompasses the number of hours that people work, as well as the quality of the labour potential measured in terms of health and education level. These are also aspects that partly determine the productivity of labour.
  • Social capital. This represents the quality of social connections in society. It is measured as the extent of the trust that citizens have in one another and in the most important institutions. In addition to the trust felt by all citizens, trust between various different groups is also examined using an indicator for feelings of discrimination. This describes the extent to which people feel part of specific groups in society that have the perception of not being able to participate fully in the social process or of not being fully accepted as they are.

Well-being ‘elsewhere’

Well-being ‘elsewhere’ comprises the effects of choices made in the Netherlands on jobs, income, resources (renewable and non-renewable) and the environment in other countries. Many choices that the Dutch make have consequences for people elsewhere. The goods and services imported into the Netherlands have in many cases been produced elsewhere. This creates jobs and income elsewhere, but also puts pressure on the renewable and non-renewable resources and the environment in other countries. Following the example of the report of the Brundtland Commission (WCED, 1987), the Monitor pays particular attention to the world’s poorest countries. This group is represented here by the 47 poorest countries according to UN criteria: the ‘least developed countries’ (LDCs).

Two main themes in relation to well-being ‘elsewhere’ are trade and aid. These are treated as one theme.

  • Trade. The trade that is conducted between the Netherlands and other countries can increase wellbeing in those countries. In this edition of the Monitor, the import figures are published in more detail than in previous editions. For example, imports from Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Oceania are now detailed separately.
  • Development cooperation and remittances. Development aid that the Netherlands provides to developing countries can increase well-being in those countries. The same applies to money that migrants transfer to family members in their country of origin. It should be noted that these remittances do not necessarily lead to greater well-being, as the way in which the money is spent does not always benefit the well-being of the whole society.

The second main theme in relation to well-being 'elsewhere' is the environment and resources.

  • The environment and resources. Non-renewable resources are imported and used here or elsewhere to produce goods and services. This consumption leads to the depletion of these resources abroad, which primarily has a major impact on well-being – now or later – in the poorest countries. Goods and services imported from other countries are produced elsewhere and this production can, for example, involve COemissions at those locations. These emissions, which are directly related to Dutch consumption, are partly responsible for this country’s greenhouse gas footprint.

1.4 Measuring well-being and the SDGs

Outline

A first, essential question that must be asked when measuring well-being is whether it can be expressed in a single figure. We must also ask whether this would be desirable. It could be extremely useful, as it would allow us, for example, to determine the extent to which growth in gross domestic product (GDP) is accompanied by greater well-being. However, it is not possible to bring together the various disparate aspects of well-being into one single indicator in an objective fashion. What weight should we attach to very different issues, such as healthy public finances, health, nature, safety and education, to name just a few key aspects of well-being? What is more, different groups of citizens, political parties and civil society organisations will weigh up these various aspects differently, and their assessments will not remain constant over time. Beyond the question of how to weigh up various aspects, a single figure for well-being would not do justice to the complexity of the concept of well-being. A situation in which education is deteriorating while safety is improving is different from one where education is improving while safety is declining, even though the final figure for well-being would be the same in both situations. It is precisely the individual – and very diverse – aspects of well-being that have to be looked at in order to obtain a comprehensive picture. And also to see how different aspects of well-being can be in conflict.

For these reasons, and following recommendations made in the international statistical world, it was decided not to sum up the various different aspects of well-being in one single indicator. Therefore, a structured set of indicators is presented in the Monitor, ranked within the three dimensions and their underlying themes. The overall picture of the state of affairs and the development of well-being is provided by all these indicators together.

Integrating the system for measuring well-being (CES framework) with the SDGs in one publication has great advantages. After all, both concepts cover the same area in terms of content and policy: the goal of a world that is sustainable – or certainly more sustainable – and how to achieve it. While the approach related to well-being expresses a general intention (well-being that is inclusive and sustainable ‘here and now’, ‘later’ and ‘elsewhere’), it is translated into specific goals in the SDG agenda. This gives policy-makers more practical guidance. The two agendas can therefore reinforce each other considerably. This is clearly demonstrated by the positive reactions from society (e.g. during the SDG event that was organised in May 2019 after Accountability Day) and the government (numerous ministries said that they found the linking of well-being and SDGs to be very relevant to their work).

Linking the well-being framework with the SDGs has also helped to translate the SDG agenda in a more specific and practical way to the Dutch context. The well-being indicators enable us to make important underlying principles of the SDG agenda clearer and more comprehensible, even when they are difficult to measure. The main concern here is the aim of the SDG agenda to achieve a balance, providing well-being for people ‘here and now’ and people ‘elsewhere’, as well as carefully considering the interests of future generations (‘later’). The integration of the two measuring systems also helps to identify and document progress better in the various policy areas thanks to the specific goals set by the SDGs. Lastly, the well-being indicators in Chapter 3 also show clearly whether people can benefit from developments in well-being or are actually disadvantaged. This evidence-based information helps to illustrate better the ‘leave no one behind’ principle in de SDGs.

The most recent value of the indicators is given for both the trends in well-being and the SDGs, together with the calculated trend over the period 2012–2019. For the trends in well-being, CBS also presents the most recent year-on-year change. For many indicators, the position of the Netherlands in the European Union (EU) is also given. In addition, both the trend and the position in the EU are qualified. The trend is qualified as positive (green), neutral (grey) or negative (red). The position is high (green), middle (grey) or low (red).

Sometimes, positive developments in one area can be associated with negative developments in another. For instance, stimulating economic growth can cause higher emissions of harmful substances. Conversely, measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions can depress economic growth. In such cases, the Monitor is firm in making no statements about which developments are most desirable. Determining the trend and position using the indicators in the dashboards is based on the primary or first-order effect on well-being. It is the task of politicians and society to make further choices and set priorities on the basis of this information.

Selecting the indicators

The indicators belonging to the themes that touch on well-being were selected using the conceptual framework provided by the CES measuring system. This was done in order to maintain a clear and traceable link with this international and widely accepted conceptual framework. Every indicator in the Monitor is relevant within a theme from the framework.

The developments and values given by the indicators are presented in Chapter 2 (Trends in well-being). These are averages or totals for the Netherlands as a whole.

In Chapter 3, the distribution over population groups is presented for indicators from the dashboard for well-being ‘here and now’. Where it was not possible to divide up indicators over the chosen population groups, an alternative indicator was selected or the theme in question was not included.

In Chapter 4, a set of indicators is used that shows how the Netherlands is developing in relation to the 17 SDGs in the context of Dutch policy. In this case, the conceptual distinction between the dimensions ‘here and now’, ‘later’ and ‘elsewhere’ is disregarded, because the SDG agenda does not make this distinction. The indicators in Chapter 4 are classified by SDG and by policy theme. The following categories of indicators have been included:

  • A selection of the internationally agreed set of SDG indicators, specifically those that are of relevance to the Dutch context. This builds on earlier work by CBS in the area of the SDGs (CBS 2016a, 2018c). The current edition also does not include all the SDG indicators that are relevant to the Netherlands. Additional data research has to be done for a number of indicators, because the data quality is not good enough for those data to be incorporated into the Monitor’s system. For example, ‘timely’ information is not always available and in a number of cases, the most recent information is only available for 2016 or 2017. Furthermore, CBS does not always have access to relevant and reliable time series, which are essential for working out the extent to which indicators show a significant rising or falling trend. In this respect, it is also striking that there is a strong emphasis on ‘here and now’ indicators, while indicators that say something about the consumption of resources are less well represented. In addition, a relatively large number of ‘input indicators’ have been included in the SDG list, but indicators that say something about outcomes are less common.
  • Virtually all indicators used to describe the state of well-being in Chapter 2 and that have been derived from the CES framework. These indicators cover some policy themes better than others. The CES indicators have been added to ensure balance in the set of indicators.
  • Additional indicators relating to resources that are used, the opportunities that this creates, the use that is made of opportunities, the outcomes related to that use and the subjective assessment of citizens.

Quality and timeliness of the data

Data quality is an important criterion when selecting indicators. This concerns the validity in relation to the theme, the reliability of the available sources, the completeness and international comparability of data and internal consistency over time. It is important that an indicator also be available for the other EU countries, as the position of the Netherlands in the EU rankings for the various themes related to well-being is a key feature of this Monitor.

Indicators that are also available for various different demographic groups (for example for young people and elderly people, men and women, people with low and high education levels) are to be preferred. This is because such indicators can be used to describe features related to the distribution of well-being, as in Chapter 3 of this Monitor.

Considerable care was taken in selecting indicators, particularly regarding their timely availability. Sometimes good indicators are available, but the most recent figure is too old to be relevant for a publication that is intended for a Parliamentary debate. To ensure that the indicators are more up-to-date, considerable efforts have been made to have as much information as possible available for the most recent year (in this edition: 2019). In some cases, these figures are marked with a note (A). This means that CBS has used an initial indication of the figure for 2019 to facilitate the political debate. It is possible that this fast-tracked provisional figure will be adjusted in later publications.

In a very limited number of cases, an indicator has been included for which the number of data points is insufficient for calculating a trend. For these indicators, a note (B) has been placed in the dashboards to signal that in these cases there is no stable or neutral trend, but rather that a trend measurement is lacking.

Because in this publication, standard methods are applied to all indicators for the calculation of developments and year-on-year changes, there may be deviations relative to other CBS publications.

Data collection for this Monitor was completed on 9 March 2020. Not all data included in this publication originate from CBS. The precise sources are given for each case in the metadata. CBS publishes tables on the website with all the data series used.

Expansions of the dataset: time series and regional distributions

With this edition of the Monitor, CBS has also made long time series of the indicators available. Where possible, the tables for this Monitor for the first time include series starting in 1995. In addition, CBS has published a new visualisation in the Monitor in which the position of the Netherlands can be followed over time.

Work is also being done on breaking down well-being as measured in the Monitor by region. The Dutch government is investing 950 million euros in ‘Regio Envelop’ regional funding in the period 2018–2022. This supports ‘Regio Deals’ that are aimed at strengthening the regions and that tackle major societal challenges. All Regio Deals have the purpose of contributing to the development of well-being. The Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality wants to monitor the development of well-being at regional level in order to evaluate the contribution that Regio Deals make to well-being. This requires a monitor that presents the basic information as a coherent whole. CBS has developed the conceptual framework for this, along similar lines to this Monitor (CBS 2019).

References

Open references

References

CBS, 2016, Measuring the SDGs: an initial picture for the Netherlands. Statistics Netherlands, The Hague/Heerlen/Bonaire.

CBS, 2017, CBS to compile a Monitor of well-being. Statistics Netherlands, The Hague/Heerlen/Bonaire.

CBS, 2018, The SDGs: the situation for the Netherlands. Statistics Netherlands, The Hague/Heerlen/Bonaire.

CBS, 2019, Conceptueel kader regionale Monitor Brede Welvaart. Statistics Netherlands, The Hague/Heerlen/Bonaire.

Stiglitz, J. E., A. Sen and J.-P. Fitoussi, 2009, Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Paris.

UNECE, 2014, Conference of European Statisticians (CES) Recommendations on Measuring Sustainable Development. United Nations, New York/Geneva

WCED, 1987, Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and development, Oxford.

Noten

For further information about the commissioning of CBS and the Parliamentary debate on the Monitor of Well-being, see CBS (2017).

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Explanation of symbols

. Data not available
* Provisional figure
** Revised provisional figure
x Publication prohibited (confidential figure)
Nil
(Between two figures) inclusive
0 (0.0) Less than half of unit concerned
empty cell Not applicable
2019–2020 2019 to 2020 inclusive
2019/2020 Average for 2019 to 2020 inclusive
2019/’20 Crop year, financial year, school year, etc., beginning in 2019 and ending in 2020
2017/’18–2019/’20 Crop year, financial year, school year, etc., 2017/18 to 2019/20 inclusive

Due to rounding, some totals may not correspond to the sum of the separate figures.

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CBS responds to developments in Dutch society by providing statistical information as facts that matter, and communicates on these facts with the outside world. In doing so, CBS offers insights into current developments in society and helps answer policy questions. Research at CBS is focused on broad trends in society and how these are interrelated.

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