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A momentous day for a happier UK

01 Dec 2011 | Mark Williamson

Today should, in my humble view, go down as a momentous day in UK history. The Office for National Statistics has published the very first official results from its new programme to measure our national wellbeing. The announcement has been rather low-key and the data is only based on a very small sample (4,200 adults) and a limited period since April this year. Yet this is a groundbreaking development and will hopefully provide the basis for a profound shift in government policy-making. If used in the right way, these new wellbeing measures - and crucially the future policy decisions which take them into account - could ultimately help to transform millions of people's lives for the better.

For far too long our main focus in measuring the progress of nations has been economic growth, in the form of increasing gross domestic product (GDP). Although very useful as a measure of economic output, GDP fails to take into account many of the things that matter most to us. Moreover, our obsession with growing GDP has increasingly put people's lives in the service of the economy, rather than the other way around. Economic growth is really just the means to an end, not the end in itself; it matters only insofar as it contributes to social progress and wellbeing. Yet the tragedy is that, despite decades of growth and material progress, surveys consistently show that average levels of life satisfaction in the UK are no higher now than they were sixty years ago.

The problems with GDP as a measure of social progress were perhaps highlighted most eloquently in a speech by Robert Kennedy when he famously said that GDP "measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile". That was in 1968, so this isn't exactly a new revelation. But it's only in very recent years that wellbeing research, across fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, neuroscience and economics, has progressed to the point where it has become viable to start measuring our subjective wellbeing with a degree of confidence and validity.

The most fundamental shift here is that we are now officially measuring and valuing people's subjective feelings about how their lives are going. This is incredibly important. Yet many people are dismissive of subjective measures as, by their very nature, they are seen to lack objectivity and rigour. It's therefore worth remembering that we already rely on subjective measures in other areas of public life. An example is the Consumer Confidence index which is used to gauge public optimism about the state of the economy. To dismiss something as unimportant because it's subjective is actually absurd. Take pain for example. Like happiness, pain is subjective and differs significantly between people. Nevertheless it matters deeply to us and we spend millions of pounds each year on medicines to alleviate it.

Using subjective measures does of course raise lots of important questions: for example: Is it possible to measure people's personal views on their wellbeing in a consistent and accurate way? Actually, one of the main reasons that scientists and statisticians are now placing more confidence in such measurements is that they have been shown to correlate with things that can be measured objectively. For example, our self reported feelings of positive and negative emotion correlate closely with electrical activity measured in different areas of our brains. They also correlate with independent reports from people who know us and with concrete actions that we take in our lives - like ending a marriage or changing jobs.

It is only by asking people how they feel that we start to uncover and understand their unique experience of life. It's not possible for me to say whether or not you're happy by looking at facts about your housing, education, income or health (although of course these things do generally correlate with happiness); only you can tell me how you're really feeling. It's essential we remember that anxiety and depression affect one in four of us, including very large numbers of people who are apparently successful in outwardly visible terms, but inside are suffering serious emotional and psychological trauma.

This is undoubtedly a controversial time for government to be introducing new wellbeing measures. With huge economic challenges, increasing unemployment, and public anger being expressed in protests and strikes, many people understandably see politicians talking about wellbeing as a cynical attempt to distract the masses from big threats to their living standards. And many would also argue that the biggest cuts to public services in a generation are undermining things which are essential for our wellbeing - like children's centres and mental health services, to give just two of examples. However, to give David Cameron some credit, he called for this shift in focus as far back as 2006 - long before he became prime minister - when he said "It's time we admitted there's more to life than money and focused not just on GDP but on GWB: general wellbeing".

Government officials wanting to measure our wellbeing isn't some awful Orwellian nightmare, where we're forced to be happy with our lot; in fact it's quite the opposite. By asking people about their wellbeing, this is about government hearing how people are really feeling and learning which things we value most in our lives and our communities. Over time it should lead to a greater recognition that activities which appear to be good for growing the economy aren't necessarily good for people's long-term wellbeing. This isn't about government making people happy; it's about them giving people a voice and listening to them.

So what are the key findings from today's wellbeing publication? Well at the headline level there are certainly some positives. Despite our significant economic difficulties and the seemingly constant doom and gloom in our newspapers, a very significant proportion of people (76%) rated their life satisfaction as 7 or more out of 10 (mean score 7.4/10), with similarly positive scores for the extent to which people reported feeling happy and feeling that what they do in their life is worthwhile. Clearly things are not all bad and this is a timely reminder that our wellbeing is not as closely tied to our financial circumstances as we're often led to believe. But nevertheless, we could be doing a lot better. For example, countries like Denmark, Norway and Canada consistently score above 8 out of 10 for average life satisfaction.

More worryingly, 8% of people rated their overall life satisfaction as less than 5 out of 10. This is a very low life satisfaction score; by way of comparison it's similar to average scores in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. 8% of people may not sound like much, but if this is truly the case nationally that equates to around 5 million unhappy people. Most worryingly of all, a very significant proportion of the population (27%) recorded high scores for levels of anxiety (i.e. more than 5 on a scale of 0 to 10). Part of this may of course be due to the current climate of economic uncertainty and unemployment. But many would also argue that our frenetic consumer culture has been a major contributor, by encouraging constant striving for wealth and status at all costs. Whatever the underlying drivers, these findings provide a stark reminder that there is still far too much unnecessary suffering and unhappiness in our society and we urgently need to act on this.

Understanding the findings, and what drives them, should be a top priority for policy makers over the coming months and years. The ability to interpret the wellbeing data will also be significantly enhanced next year when the ONS has results from the full 200,000 or so households that are now being surveyed. Crucially, this larger set of wellbeing data is being captured alongside a wide range of other household information. This means it should be possible to correlate measures of life satisfaction with many other important indicators, such as income, housing, crime levels or health. Over time this will give us a much clearer picture of which factors relate most closely to high or low levels of wellbeing. Today's publication did a bit of this; for example it shows that people who are married are typically happier than those who are not and that the highest levels of life satisfaction were in the 65 to 74 age group (7.9/10 on average).

But measurement and analysis is of course not enough. It's just the beginning. The new wellbeing data must be used to drive concrete action in terms of policy development. Encouragingly the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, is now asking departments across Whitehall to consider the impact of their policies on wellbeing. And the Treasury guidance used to assess the impact of policy changes is being updated - so new initiatives will now have to consider the potential impact on wellbeing, alongside existing considerations like the impact on growth and employment. This provides an opportunity to rethink some extremely important issues. For example, our economy was landed in its present mess, at least in part, because it was believed that deregulation of banks would produce higher long-term growth. That was an argument based on the wrong priorities and has led to extremely damaging consequences for our wellbeing. We must learn to use the new well-being data to avoid repeating these kinds of mistakes.

So today is a momentous day for a happier UK, not because of the findings that have just been published, but because this is the start of a vitally important journey towards prioritising the things that really matter most. Long may it continue.


Mark Williamson is Director of Action for Happiness


Action for Happiness


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