Personal wellbeing harmonised standard

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:19 May 2020
Owner:GSS Harmonisation Team
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation standards and guidance

What is harmonisation?

Harmonisation is the process of making statistics and data more comparable, consistent and coherent. Harmonised standards set out how to collect and report statistics to ensure comparability across different data collections in the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Harmonisation produces more useful statistics that give users a greater level of understanding.

What do we mean by personal wellbeing?

In the past, assumptions were made about how objective conditions, such as people’s health and income, might influence their individual wellbeing. Personal wellbeing measures, on the other hand, take account of what matters to people by allowing them to decide what is important when they respond to questions.

Questions and response options (inputs)

The harmonised questions on this topic are designed to collect basic information, for use in most surveys. They are not designed to replace questions used in specialist surveys where more detailed analysis is required.

For personal wellbeing, the harmonised standard is made up of four questions, often referred to in literature as the “ONS4” (as they were developed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)). Each of the questions are rated on an 11-point scale.

Introducing the questions

The suggested introduction to the questions is:

Next I would like to ask you four questions about your feelings on aspects of your life. There are no right or wrong answers. For each of these questions I’d like you to give an answer on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is “not at all” and 10 is “completely”.

The questions

Question stem Response options
Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?0 to 10
Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?0 to 10
Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?0 to 10
On a scale where 0 is "not at all anxious" and 10 is "completely anxious", overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?0 to 10

Using this standard

Question placement

It is recommended that these questions are placed after the key demographic questions in surveys. This allows rapport to be developed between the interviewer and the respondent, as well as ensuring the main survey questions do not impact on response to the personal wellbeing questions.

Guidance for data collection

These questions should be used together, in the order they are presented.

When all four questions cannot be used, “life satisfaction” and “worthwhileness” should be chosen (Vander Weele et al, 2020). This is because they have the best correlation with the overall measure, and relate to concepts measured globally.

Although it is possible that there are situations where there is not enough space to ask all four questions, ONS reports that it only takes “on average about a minute and a half for the interviewer to ask the four questions and for respondents to give their answers. This includes the interviewer reading out the introduction to the personal well-being questions”.

The question stem for “anxiety” is longer than for the others as it includes extra guidance. This is because cognitive testing in 2013 found some respondents were “providing a high rating out of 10 when they had intended to provide a rating indicating low anxiety”. When using this question, therefore, it is recommended to use the extra guidance.

Types of data collection this standard is suitable for

The personal wellbeing questions have been tested for interviewer administered modes (face-to-face and telephone). They are also currently being piloted in an online survey.

Different collection modes can affect responses and personal wellbeing estimates are no exception. For example, in the Annual Population Survey it appears that on average people responding face-to-face with an interviewer in their home gave lower ratings to those responding via the telephone.

When asking these questions online, it is important not to display a visual scale from 0 to 10. This is because screen sizes vary, which might impact on what response options are seen. An example of this is using a laptop might show the entire scale but using a smartphone might only show the first few response options. This would result in non-comparable and not robust data.

To address this issue, the ONS have developed a different way of collecting this data for the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey. Instead of displaying a visual scale, respondents will be provided with a free text box where they can enter a number between 0 and 10.

Using this question in the Welsh language

This harmonised standard was designed in the English language. At present we do not provide a Welsh language translation, as user demand for this standard is UK wide and Welsh language testing has not been completed to ensure a translation is comparable and appropriate. Harmonised standards based on Census research have been tested in the Welsh language, which is why we are able to provide Welsh versions of them. If you are interested in using a Welsh language version of a harmonised standard that has not been translated, please contact us:

Presenting and reporting the data (outputs)

Life satisfaction, worthwhileness and happiness scores

Response on 11-point scaleLabel
0 to 4Low
5 to 6Medium
7 to 8 High
9 to 10 Very high

Because the scale for anxiety is the reverse of for the other questions (with high scores indicating low personal wellbeing), recommended output is presented separately.

Anxiety scores

Response on 11-point scaleLabel
0 to 1 Very low
2 to 3Low
4 to 5Medium
6 to 10 High


Comparability across UK nations

These questions were first run on the Annual Population Survey which covers the whole UK. This has allowed for comparisons between the four UK nations: Northern Ireland shows consistently higher average ratings of life satisfaction, happiness and worthwhileness. Between England, Scotland and Wales there is no significant difference in average country-wide ratings.

There does not appear to be research into whether this is due to questions being designed for Britain and not having the same meaning in Northern Ireland, or whether there truly are higher levels in Northern Ireland. Regardless, it ought to be noted in UK-wide comparisons. 

Comparability across different data collection modes

ONS has published data on mode effects for two interviewer led modes (telephone and face to face), showing significant mode effects.  This is consistent with other research on the Annual Population Survey, and Community Life Survey. Because of this, it is not recommended to compare data from this standard that has been collected in different modes.

Comparability of this standard and other measures

Outputs that use this standard are comparable with other surveys that also use this standard. However, we would not recommend comparing levels of personal wellbeing from outputs using this standard with other outputs that use an alternative measure.

Examples of when this standard has been used

Surveys that used this standard

A review in 2019 identified surveys using the harmonised standard for personal wellbeing. Some adopted only a subset of the standard, e.g. just the question on satisfaction, or all but the question on anxiety.

Surveys which provide data perfectly comparable to the harmonised standard are:

  • Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (2019), happiness and satisfaction
  • Community Life Survey (2018/19), happiness, worthwhileness and satisfaction
  • Continuous Household Survey Northern Ireland (2019/2)
  • Crime Survey for England and Wales – Adult (2017/18)
  • English Housing Survey (2017/18)
  • Families Continuous Attitudes Survey (2019), happiness and satisfaction
  • Family Resources Survey (2014/15 onwards)
  • Food and You Survey (2018)
  • Health Survey Northern Ireland (2017/18)
  • Labour Force Survey (2019), and the Annual Population Survey which combines Labour Force Survey data with boosts
  • Living Costs and Food Survey (2017/18)
  • Metropolitan Police Public Attitudes Survey (2017)
  • Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE): The Natural Survey on People and the Natural Environment (2019)
  • National Citizen Service Evaluation (2016), happiness, worthwhileness and satisfaction
  • National Survey for Wales (2018/19), happiness, worthwhileness and satisfaction
  • Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (2019/20)
  • Scottish Health Survey (2017), satisfaction only
  • Taking Part Survey (2015/16), worthwhileness, satisfaction and anxiety
  • Time Use Survey (2014/15)
  • Wealth and Assets Survey (2016-18)
  • Young People and Gambling (2019/20)

Other surveys which provide data that is probably comparable or near comparable to the harmonised standard are:

  • Active Lives Children and Young People (2019/20), happiness, satisfaction and worthwhileness
  • Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (2019), anxiety and worthwhileness
  • Community Life Survey (2018/19), anxiety only
  • English Longitudinal Study of Ageing – ELSA (wave 8)
  • Families Continuous Attitudes Survey (2019), anxiety and worthwhileness
  • Health Survey for England (2017), satisfaction only
  • Healthy Ageing in Scotland – HAGIS (wave 8)
  • National Citizen Service Evaluation (Cabinet Office), worthwhileness only
  • National Survey for Wales (2018/19), anxiety only
  • Taking Part (2015/16), happiness only

Development of this standard

The Measuring National Well-being (MNW) Programme was launched by the ONS in November 2010 to help understand “how society is doing”. The aim of MNW is to look beyond traditional headline economic growth figures to measure what really matters to people.

Following the launch of this programme, the personal wellbeing questions were developed in 2011, then cognitively tested in 2011 and 2012 and quantitively tested on the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey in both 2011 and 2015. The ONS questions were adopted in January 2014 as an interim harmonised standard. The interim status for personal wellbeing was removed in early 2015.

Further information

Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS)

A further set of questions that can be used to measure wellbeing are the WEMWBS. The output from these questions is not comparable to this harmonised measure. These questions are useful when greater detail is required, or when a single figure output is desired. However, for situations where questionnaire space is limited and the greater detail is not necessary, the harmonised measure should be used.


We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, get in touch:



Date Changes
19 May 2020 This page was reviewed and updated.
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