Monitor of Well-being: a broader picture

/ Author: Jaap van Sandijk
© Hollandse Hoogte / Rob Voss
On 16 May 2018, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) presented its first Monitor of Well-being. The monitor - an annual publication - is an assessment of well-being in the Netherlands, not merely based on gross domestic product (GDP), but taking into account other indicators including environment, health, education, labour, security, trust and inequality. Senior researcher Jan Pieter Smits of CBS talks about the importance of measuring with this broader compass.

How do we measure well-being? Well-being was hitherto measured in terms of GDP, which mainly say something about economic growth; but well-being is more than just that. Other important indicators of well-being include our health, the quality of our air and the level of trust in public authorities, for example. These indicators have been measured in the Monitor of Well-being. Hence, the monitor provides a broader picture of increased well-being.

A different compass

Smits explains: ‘At the international level, there is growing awareness that measuring well-being requires a different compass with which to move forward. This awareness first emerged during the late 1960s. One can think of the Club of Rome, which published the report “The Limits to Growth” in 1972. Another example is the Brundtland report “Our Common Future” from 1987. Over the years, the awareness that measuring well-being should be done differently continued to grow.’ A tipping point was reached in 2008, according to Smits’ analysis. ‘There were a climate crisis and an economic crisis. The impression that measurement of well-being should change, began to sink in properly. The realisation that economic growth and increasing well-being are not synonymous became stronger. Everyone could see, for instance, that Chinese cities were becoming uninhabitable in spite of feverish economic growth.’

One authoritative instrument

In the Netherlands, the House of Representatives established in 2015 a Temporary Committee on a Broad Definition of Welfare, which examined the questions whether and how welfare should be defined outside GDP. In their report “Mapping out well-being” (“Welvaart in kaart”), the Committee concluded that there is a clear need for one authoritative instrument to present the wealth of data on broad well-being in a clear and concise format. Based on this conclusion, central government commissioned CBS to develop a Monitor of Well-being. This involved transforming the existing Sustainability Monitor of the Netherlands.

‘The Monitor of Well-being is a well-arranged tool that serves the wider political and public debate’


The Monitor of Well-being contains three dashboards, Smits explains. ‘In mapping well-being, we need to focus not only on “here and now” but also on the consequences of our actions for the rest of the world and for future generations. The first dashboard is a quantified overview of well-being as it improves and deteriorates depending on economic growth. In the second dashboard, we examine the consequences of our well-being for future supplies of vital raw materials and resources. In the third and last dashboard, we determine the effect our quest for well-being has on the least developed countries (LDCs). These three dimensions are presented together using one hundred indicators and catchy (appealing) visualisations.

International recognition

The Dutch model is receiving wide recognition internationally. So far, 65 statistical offices abroad have endorsed this model. Thus, it becomes possible to draw an international comparison of future trends in broad well-being. ‘At CBS, we are of course happy with the recognition and proud of our leading international position,’ says Smits. ‘But eventually countries have to start using the Monitor in actual practice. It is nice to see that the Monitor of Well-being is used for policy practices in the Netherlands in any case.’ He goes on to stress that this is also necessary: ‘The Monitor of Well-being is not only an indication of the shape our society is in, but also a well-arranged tool that serves the wider political and public debate. The Monitor creates connections and prevents fragmentation of debates.’