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What is wellbeing?
A first step in producing meaningful statistics is to map the conceptual territory that is to be measured. In the case of measuring wellbeing, this is a large task. From birth to death, life enmeshes individuals within a dynamic culture consisting of the natural environment (light, heat, air, land, water, minerals, flora, fauna), the human made environment (material objects, buildings, roads, machinery, appliances, technology), social arrangements (families, social networks, associations, institutions, economies), and human consciousness (knowledge, beliefs, understanding, skills, traditions). Wellbeing depends on all the factors that interact within this culture and can be seen as a state of health or sufficiency in all aspects of life. Measuring wellbeing therefore involves mapping the whole of life, and considering each life event or social context that has the potential to affect the quality of individual lives, or the cohesion of society. At the individual level, this can include the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of life. At a broader level, the social, material and natural environments surrounding each individual, through interdependency, become part of the wellbeing equation.
Because of this diversity, the process of measuring wellbeing involves making value judgements about what aspects of life are important to wellbeing and what social issues are most pressing. It involves making a range of pragmatic decisions about what phenomena will provide the greatest insight into these issues, how these phenomena can be measured accurately, and how the resulting measures can be combined, constructed and presented to be informative and accessible.
There can be no single measure of wellbeing that satisfies all parties interested in helping people improve their lives. Rather, a range of measures needs to be available to researchers, policy makers, welfare providers and other community groups and members, who will select from this range to inform their own particular issues of interest. While some indicators are fundamental to the measurement of wellbeing (e.g. mortality rates, inequality measures, unemployment rates), at any one time the range of social indicators produced by the ABS will be a subset of all possible wellbeing indicators, influenced by the preoccupations and concerns of contemporary culture. The focus of social statistics will also be contained by what social conditions can be appropriately influenced by policy and intervention.
Individual wellbeing can be measured using people's subjective evaluation of themselves, based on their feelings, or by collating any number of observable attributes that reflect on their wellbeing. In some ways, wellbeing might best be assessed subjectively, as it is strongly associated with notions of happiness and life satisfaction. Thus personal wellbeing might be measured in terms of how happy or satisfied people are with their life or with aspects of their life (their job, health, etc.). While such measures can be difficult to interpret, subjective measures, as with other statistics, can be aggregated and monitored over time, and, in theory, provide a picture of the nation's view as to whether living conditions are getting better or worse.
The other approach, more strongly based in scientific tradition, is to measure wellbeing by counting people with particular attributes. For example, aspects of the population's health can be assessed by counting the number of people who have particular health conditions; economic wellbeing can be assessed, in part, by counting the number of people with particular levels of income or wealth. The ABS has given primacy to objective measures of wellbeing, largely for the pragmatic reasons that such information is most useful to government agencies concerned with the delivery of services, and is more readily interpreted. However, subjective measures can provide an important supplement to objective measures, and for this reason are provided by the ABS within specific areas of concern.