Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill: consultation analysis

The Scottish Government sought views on a proposed Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill. The consultation closed on 14 February 2024 and this report is the analysis of your views.

3. Defining wellbeing


This chapter presents analysis of the consultation responses to the two questions asked within the ‘Defining wellbeing’ section of the consultation.

Question 1

Table 3.1 presents the quantitative response to Question 1 which asked, ‘Is a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ required?’.

Points to note include that:

  • a majority of all consultation respondents (61%) agree that a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is required
  • a sizable proportion of all consultation respondents either ‘don’t know’ or left the question unanswered (26% combined), in the main organisations and across all sub-groups
  • the remainder of all consultation respondents said that a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is not required (13%), primarily individuals
Table 3.1: Is a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ required?
Respondent type Yes No Don’t know Not answered
Organisations 62% 6% 13% 20%
- Public sector 55% 9% 13% 24%
- Third sector 68% 3% 18% 12%
- Membership body 68% 5% 5% 23%
- Private sector 67% 0% 17% 17%
Individuals 59% 25% 14% 2%
Total 61% 13% 13% 13%

N=180 (117 organisations and 63 individuals)

Percentages may not total 100% due to rounding

Question 2

Around 90% of all consultation respondents answered Question 2 which asked, ‘Do you have any views on how ‘wellbeing’ can be clearly defined in legislation?’.

Consultation responses do not all directly relate to Question 2.

Rather, many respondents provide a rationale for how they answered the previous question (Question 1). These respondents often provide further explanation as to why they agree, disagree, or are unsure about whether a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is required. Some then go on to express views on how ‘wellbeing’ can be clearly defined in legislation.

Theme 1: Consultation respondents who express support for a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’

Support for a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is expressed in Question 1 among individuals, organisations, and across all sub-groups.

Organisation respondents often frame their support for a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ in a range of ways. It is highlighted that:

  • there are various references to wellbeing (and wellbeing economy) in legislation and across the policy landscape – it is suggested that a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ could provide greater clarity and a shared understanding among duty holders and the general public
  • the range of definitions of wellbeing which exist also ‘give rise to different methods of assessing whether wellbeing is being delivered’
  • a statutory definition of wellbeing could provide greater clarity and ‘specificity around public sector duties’ – for example, by setting out overarching goals, what is expected of public bodies, and helping to facilitate improved reporting and accountability
  • it could provide clarity and consistency in how the concept of wellbeing ‘is applied in legislation, policy making, and public sector decision-making’
  • wellbeing is a ‘broad concept’ and a clear definition with accompanying explanation and guidance (‘ways of working’) could help public bodies ‘in their delivery roles’

Some individual and organisation respondents (all sub-groups) acknowledge in their consultation response that there are inherent challenges in defining a concept such as ‘wellbeing,’ and arriving at a definition that has universal applicability and understanding.

The main points raised by these respondents are that:

  • wellbeing is a relative or subjective term, and its meaning can change over time and depending on context
  • the multi-dimensional nature of wellbeing, which encompasses health, economic, social, cultural, and environmental facets and placemaking, can make it inherently difficult to define - but should be captured in a statutory definition (a ‘wider determinants of health approach’)

The following (selected) organisation quotes further reflect points raised.

“Wellbeing can be a subjective concept, with varying understandings and interpretations into its meaning and applicability to policy. Without a clear definition, it will be more challenging to embed it into legislation and make it statutory. A definition makes it clear to all actors what is involved and is required to measure outcomes – without a definition it is very challenging to monitor and measure outcomes.” Obesity Action Scotland

“An effective definition of wellbeing must embrace the subjective dimensions of individual experience but set within an assessment of objective context and fact. The WHO and the OECD both define wellbeing using a combination of subjective and objective wellbeing, and this practice is reflected in UK approaches (the ONS) and in Scotland’s current approach with respect the NPF and Getting it right for every child (Scottish Government, 2008) where ‘child wellbeing’ is specifically defined. The NPF combines measurement of how well Scotland is doing in economic terms with a broader range of wellbeing measures. These indicators incorporate a wide range of different types of data – from social attitudes and perceptions to economic and environmental statistics.” Scottish Borders Council

“It may be necessary to have different definitions for different contexts - for example, the context of national definition versus personal wellbeing. However, it is essential for collaborative working that different organisations have the one definition consistently across all policies that apply to all their services. This could be a very challenging task but one which should be carried out before such a Bill is enacted.” Argyll and Bute Council

These respondents also identify other issues for Scottish Government to give further thought to when finalising a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing.’

Firstly, support is expressed among these respondents for Scottish Government to develop a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ in Scotland which aligns with ‘widely recognised, evidence based, and globally accepted’ definitions of wellbeing.

Existing definitions/approaches, which span both collective and individual wellbeing, referred to in these consultation responses include the:

  • World Health Organization (WHO) definition
    • “Wellbeing is a positive state experienced by individuals and societies. Similar to health, it is a resource for daily life and is determined by social, economic, and environmental conditions. Wellbeing encompasses quality of life and the ability of people and societies to contribute to the world with a sense of meaning and purpose. Focusing on wellbeing supports the tracking of the equitable distribution of resources, overall thriving and sustainability. A society’s wellbeing can be determined by the extent to which it is resilient, builds capacity for action, and is prepared to transcend challenges.”
  • OECD Wellbeing Framework approach which is built around three distinct components - current wellbeing, inequalities in wellbeing outcomes, and resources for future wellbeing
  • Welsh Government Well-being of Future Generations Act which is about improving the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of Wales - the Act gives a legally binding common purpose, including seven long-term wellbeing goals
  • definition of wellbeing proposed by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Carnegie UK (outlined below) – several organisations express support for this definition (or propose minor amendments to it), including Scotland’s International Development Alliance, International Development Education Association of Scotland, EAUC, Scottish Women's Budget Group, Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council, Generations Working Together, National Carers Organisations, and Oxfam Scotland
    • “Collective wellbeing is the progressive realisation of social, economic, environmental, and democratic outcomes which enable people to meet their needs, as identified through consultation with the people of Scotland, pursued in a way that reduces inequalities in wellbeing between different groups. It also recognises the importance of protecting the interests and needs of future generations and fostering intergenerational equity.” Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Carnegie UK
  • Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) - statutory guidance which clarifies how the eight wellbeing indicators (SHANARRI)[1] are used in assessing the wellbeing of children and young people
  • What Works for Wellbeing Centre which sets out dimensions of wellbeing as: a personal dimension including confidence, self-esteem, reduced anxiety, meaning, purpose and optimism; a cultural dimension, including coping, resilience, achievement, capability, personal identity, creative skills and expression and life skills; and a social dimension including sociability and connections, social capital and reducing social inequalities

Other points raised by consultation respondents who express support for a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ in Scotland include that:

  • there is a balance to be struck in terms a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ that is not too ‘narrowly’ defined (could be constrained or become outdated) or too ‘vague’ (to be rendered meaningless)
  • there is an interconnected relationship between ‘collective wellbeing’ and ‘sustainable development’ – the definition of wellbeing should be ‘complementary and overlapping with the definition of sustainable development’ to avoid any potential conflicts, and the relationship between wellbeing and sustainable development should be clearly set out in legislation (for example, how it relates to and differs from)
  • the statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ could be built on the principles of ‘equity, long-termism, and citizen engagement’
  • the statutory definition could be built around the principle that ‘individual wellbeing must not be achieved at the expense of ecological degradation’ and reflect the ‘dependence of human wellbeing on environmental quality/planetary health’
  • the statutory definition should consider both current and future generations - and not just of people in Scotland – ‘it should work for the wellbeing of the people of Scotland (including future generations) while considering the impact that national policies have on the wellbeing of people elsewhere’
  • the statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ should put ‘human rights at the centre’ – for example, by ensuring that the proposed Human Rights Bill and the Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill have ‘appropriate regard for one another, such that they are consistent in their aims, complementary in their duties, and together ensure the fullest realisation possible of human rights for everybody in Scotland’
  • continued engagement with stakeholders and citizens could be undertaken to test the statutory definition ‘as wellbeing has many different aspects’ and to engage citizens in a conversation ‘about what matters to them.’ - Social Enterprise Scotland go further and suggest that continued engagement could be undertaken by the proposed Commissioner for Future Generations
  • the statutory definition should be supported by ‘effective guidance on ways of working and how the principles should be operationalised’, as well as provision of advice and appropriate resourcing for duty bearers, to ensure effective and consistent implementation by public bodies
  • Scottish Government could also consider responses submitted to other consultations – for example, Proposed Wellbeing and Sustainable Development (Scotland) Bill (Sarah Boyack MSP, December 2022), and National Outcomes review 2023 (March 2023)
  • any statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ should be ‘easily understood’ by the general public

Theme 2: Consultation respondents who don’t know or who are unsure whether a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is required

Consultation respondents who ‘don’t know’ whether a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is required or who left Question 1 unanswered (mainly individuals and public sector and membership organisations) raise similar points as other consultation respondents. Points raised include that:

  • a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ could ‘bring greater clarity and focus,’ but equally there are inherent ‘challenges in defining wellbeing’ as it means different things in different contexts (and wider challenges in trying to quantify wellbeing)
  • a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ could increase accountability and scrutiny of decision-making by Scottish Ministers and public authorities
  • there are various references to wellbeing across existing legislation and policy - consistent definitions are considered important in this regard
  • a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ that is too narrow risks becoming outdated or irrelevant to certain communities and demographic groups
  • there could be a focus on human rights in any statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’

A few (selected) organisation quotes are set out below.

“This illustrates the difficulties with a statutory definition. Can a definition be found which works equally well for different situations and which has universal applicability and understanding. Consequently, regulation may be the best vehicle to provide definitions of wellbeing which link to context – and which take full account of the broad range of available wellbeing measures and indicators.” Scottish Children's Reporter Administration

“We would welcome legislating wellbeing outcomes rather than a definition. An outcome focused approach to wellbeing would seek to create improvements across the broad range that wellbeing encompasses. If wellbeing is defined in law, we recommend providing a diverse range of examples of what wellbeing looks like in different contexts and to different communities as a useful way of showing the multiple aspects of wellbeing.” Historic Environment Scotland

“Defining wellbeing as a concept is relatively straightforward, yet translating it into clear legislative terms poses challenges, mainly due to the multitude of subjective and objective factors involved. Achieving common ground on a precise definition may prove elusive given this complexity. Nevertheless, a promising starting point lies in delineating key components such as Societal Wellbeing, Workplace Wellbeing, Social Wellbeing, Physical Wellbeing, and Emotional Wellbeing.” Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

“Wellbeing is a multifaceted concept that is both broadly understood and fundamentally nebulous and contextual: providing a universally accepted definition that is clear and robust enough to be enshrined in law is going to be challenging and we are unclear what the benefit may be…The World Health Organisation and Geneva Charter for Well-being both have a focus on the equitable distribution of resources as the foundation for wellbeing, we would support this and also emphasise that both also recognise that fundamental changes are need to achieve wellbeing. As the Scottish Government has a commitment to Community Wealth Building it would be good to root any definitions of wellbeing in the pillars of Community Wealth Building to ensure an equitable distribution of resources, particularly land, as the basis for fostering national wellbeing.” Community Land Scotland

Wider points raised by these respondents, but not to any great extent, include that a non-statutory approach may be more appropriate, as reflected in the following organisation quote.

“Given the breadth of issues that can be encapsulated within the concept, a statutory definition may not be appropriate, and the Scottish Government may instead wish to consider whether it would instead be more appropriate to include a broad definition in guidance. A definition that builds on the concept of collective wellbeing, as set out by Carnegie UK, would be a good starting point.” Institute for European Environmental Policy UK

A similar viewpoint is expressed by consultation respondents who do not think a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is required (see Theme 3 on the page below).

Further, Scottish Community Alliance consider it important that there are not any unintended consequences arising from new statutory requirements/definitions, as reflected in the following extract from their submission.

“Poorly framed or overly prescriptive definitions might have negative impacts on key legislation such as the 2003 and 2016 Land Reform Acts. Statutory requirements placed on public authorities may be delivered by cascading additional duties onto suppliers and clients, including the third sector, rather than effecting change within the public authorities themselves. Our greatest concern, however, is that the major obstacles to achieving the objectives of the proposed bill are not statutory but cultural.” Scottish Community Alliance

Theme 3: Consultation respondents who do not express support for a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’

Consultation respondents who responded that a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ is not required at Question 1 (mainly individuals followed by public sector organisations) typically raise points including that:

  • wellbeing is an inherently difficult and complex concept to define – this is reflected in comments and phrases such as ‘nebulous’, ‘means different things to different people’, ‘too vague a concept’, ‘will always relate to an individual’s subjective experience within a particular context’, and it is a ‘multi-dimensional construct’
  • if wellbeing is enshrined in law, then it could be constrained by this definition – this is further reflected in comments such as ‘things may change and there must be the flexibility’ to keep the definition up-to-date, ‘potential effect of limiting responses/interventions to unique local issues and challenges’, ‘a relative term and its meaning can change over time’; ‘a single definition risks reducing and restricting it’, and ‘it may erode community or place-based voices’
  • a non-statutory approach may be more appropriate – for example, ‘a policy document would suffice’ or ‘an effective scoping, option appraisal and engagement approach’
  • they do not see the added value in wellbeing being defined in legislation as a standalone concept – a suggestion is that the upcoming Human Rights Bill which sets out to incorporate treaties (for example, social, environmental, and democratic rights) could offer a preferred framework

The (selected) organisation quotes reflect some of the points raised by these respondents.

“We support the comments made by LINK and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and propose that the priority focus initially should be on developing an agreed and consistent definition on wellbeing and that a statutory duty should be placed on Scottish Ministers to publish a policy statement on wellbeing.” Keep Scotland Beautiful

“Wellbeing is notoriously difficult to define. The concept of wellbeing refers to an assembly of intersectional criteria within a matrix of domains relating to the physical, mental, social, and cultural aspects of lived experience. It could be argued an attempt to define wellbeing will at best be inadequate, and at worst wrong, given the intersectional complexity of lived experience and that there are no precise boundaries for the concept of wellbeing.” Aberdeen City Council

“Defining wellbeing in legislation could have the potential effect of limiting responses/interventions to unique local issues and challenges. Practitioners and policy makers instead should focus attention on clearly understanding the issues and required outcomes, then responding to those following an effective scoping, option appraisal and engagement approach. In our view a focus on establishing good practice to achieve required outcomes is more beneficial than a focus on definition.” Scottish Futures Trust

“Wellbeing is contextual to different communities and if defined in legislation, it would need to be flexible enough to allow government and public bodies to contribute in their unique way. It must balance the need for clarity with the need for it to be specific enough to be meaningful. A legislative definition could be reductive and inflexible, definitions are also frequently contested, and perspective will change over time.” South of Scotland Enterprise

“The exercise of defining wellbeing is complex, primarily because it is a relative term, and its meaning can change over time. Trying to define it as a standalone concept is difficult. The difficulties can come from trying to put aspirational policy goals and standards into the format of legislation and law. Researchers have commented that: ‘Many attempts at expressing its nature have focused purely on dimensions of wellbeing rather than one definition.’ Definitions can be too broad or fuzzy and end up losing meaning. Wellbeing is a multidimensional construct.” Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland

Event summary – defining ‘wellbeing’

A statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ would be beneficial

Some event attendees agree that a statutory definition of ‘wellbeing’ would be beneficial. Views expressed include that this could:

  • provide clarity to public authorities
  • make the term ‘wellbeing’ less open to interpretation
  • hold public bodies to account in working towards wellbeing objectives
  • provide clarity to the public, including around the role of the proposed Future Generations Commissioner

There are challenges in defining ‘wellbeing’

Event attendees identify a range of challenges in defining ‘wellbeing’ in a single statement. Points raised include that:

  • the concept is multi-dimensional - wellbeing means different things to people and to organisations, and is dependent on context
  • there is a risk that a definition is too narrowly or rigidly defined – flexibility is critical as wellbeing changes over time, and in an ever changing society
  • there is a risk that a definition is too broad or vague – people and organisations may not see its relevance to them personally or to their work
  • any statutory definition of wellbeing should not infringe on, or negatively impact, existing legislation and/or definitions of wellbeing (for example, GIRFEC and SHANARRI)

Viewpoints expressed by event attendees on how ‘wellbeing’ could be defined in legislation include that it could:

  • be clear whether the definition relates to personal wellbeing versus collective wellbeing for current and future generations to avoid any ambiguity
  • be considered within the context of wider terminology, for example, a wellbeing economy
  • reflect the wider determinants of wellbeing, as well as intergenerational approaches to wellbeing
  • reflect a Scotland and global outlook to support comparative analysis

Alignment with existing definitions of ‘wellbeing’

Event notes refer to the relevance of the NPF as Scotland’s wellbeing framework – it is considered adaptable and not overly prescriptive. There is also reference to existing definitions of wellbeing such as WHO, OECD, and GIRFEC/SHANARRI. Ensuring alignment with globally accepted definitions of wellbeing and/or adopting or amending them in some way to better reflect Scotland’s context is considered important.


Email: wsdbill@gov.scot

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