Topic: Article
Posted on 31st Jul 2023

Happiness, Wellbeing, Life Satisfaction, Social Value… Call it What You Want – But could we be missing the point?

Defining Wellbeing is an ever-present challenge in the social impact community. There are a lot of frameworks, guidance, definitions, and ideas out there. But do they get to the heart of what's really important?

I have sat in many meetings over the years and had numerous conversations about what the social impact profession ought to call the satisfaction that people feel about their lives.

Additional guidance is always welcomed, however, even as a social impact practitioner, I find it challenging to keep pace with the many new frameworks, guidance notes, and definitions that are being published. As the interest in and importance of social impact grows, it is hard to see this pace slowing down any time soon.

The following three examples provide a flavour of the range of ways organisations are currently talking about and approaching this topic:

Social Value UK currently says:

“Social Value is a broaderunderstandingof value. It moves beyond using money as the main indicator of value, instead putting the emphasis on engaging people to understand the impact of decisions on their lives. The people’s perspective is critical.”

Read More: Social Value UK | The professional body for social value

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UKGBC’s take is:

“In the context of the built environment, social value is created when buildings, places and infrastructure support environmental, economic and social wellbeing, and in doing so improve the quality of life of people. Exactly which environmental, economic and social outcomes create social value will depend on the best interests of the people most impacted by the project or built asset. Those outcomes must be defined for each built environment project”.

Read More: Framework-for-Defining-Social-Value.pdf (

The OECD’s current (2020) “How’s Life” indicator takes a different approach. It doesn’t have a definition – but encompasses its 11 dimensions of current well-being and the four capitals for future well-being of the OECD Well-being Framework.

The 11 current wellbeing dimensions are:

  • Income & wealth
  • Housing
  • Work & Job Quality
  • Health
  • Knowledge and Skills
  • Environmental Quality
  • Subjective Wellbeing
  • Safety
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Social Connections
  • Civic Engagement

And the four future capitals are:

  • Economic
  • Natural
  • Human
  • Social

Read the latest (2020) OECD report: Executive summary | How’s Life? 2020 : Measuring Well-being | OECD iLibrary (

What’s Really Important?

The terms and definitions that we, the Social Impact community, adopt need to be broad, flexible, and use the type of language that enables all participants and stakeholders to understand what is being talked about.

Yes – in every piece of social value work that is done, it is vitally important to carefully scope out what is to be included, and perhaps more importantly not to be included. This is so that everyone affected understands, buys into, and agrees on the scope of the work. But in my experience, the description of outcomes, or ‘the changes that people experience’, should as far as possible follow the words that the people experiencing change have used themselves.

Which brings me to the main point of this column.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, powered by the Gallup World Poll data, issued its 11th annual world happiness report a couple of months ago. To be honest, over the years the title, and specifically the use of the word “Happiness”, has put me off taking anything more than a cursory glance. But this year I decided to dive in, and admittedly, there is some highly informative, thought-provoking content in there…

Main highlights for me are as follows:

There continues to be a clear and established link between life satisfaction and health and prosperity No surprises there” I hear you say! Nevertheless, it is worth repeating and reinforcing this point at every opportunity we get.

Virtuous & Altruistic Behaviour is proven to increase “happiness” – of the receiver AND giver, especially when this is voluntary and mainly motivated by concern for the people being helped.

The Impact of Misery – as with any social impact assessment, it is simply unacceptable to look solely at pro-social impacts and outcomes. Negative impacts need to be explored, analysed and reported with the same approach and rigour.

The Happiness Gap – people are generally happier in countries where the happiness gap (difference between the top and bottom halves of the population) is smaller. Countries with the highest average life satisfaction levels also have the most equal distribution of happiness (i.e., Fewer people with low satisfaction levels)

There’s been a surge in Kindness – pro-social acts in 2021 and 2022 were approximately 25% more common than they were before the pandemic.

The increasing importance of data and social media – there have been huge advances in the way data is being used to test and benchmark wellbeing, health and other outcomes.

Download and read the UN’s full report here

Or the Executive Summary here  Executive Summary | The World Happiness Report

The Challenge

The big question here is the same as the challenge we set for ourselves and our clients in pretty much every piece of work we do. How do we best use what people say to optimise social value?

The Social Impact community needs to keep striving to help policymakers, commissioners, developers, designers, and, importantly, our own businesses better understand prevailing social needs. We then need to work with decision-makers to demonstrate how local needs and aspirations can congruently inform thinking and planning, in a way that benefits all stakeholders while also increasing financial returns. BUT CRUCIALLY, someone needs to be able to stick around to understand whether the planned pro-social outcomes have actually happened, and if not, why, and what can be done about it.

Collectively, we are currently putting a lot of effort into defining and redefining the work we do. Let’s all divert a portion of this into helping the Real Estate Industry become genuinely more positively socially impactful, by understanding and meeting the needs of a wider range of stakeholders.



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