Good news, we're slightly happier. But why?
31 Jul 2013 | Mark Williamson
How satisfied are you with your life? It's a question we've
probably all pondered at times. But for the last two years it's
also been one of a handful of new "subjective wellbeing" questions
which the Office for National Statistics has been asking people all
over the UK.
You may be surprised to learn that the UK is now leading the way
in terms of officially measuring the wellbeing of its citizens.
We're at the forefront of a growing global movement where people
are recognising that there's more to a good society than just
economic growth - and that we need measures of progress which
reflect the quality of life as people actually experience it.
Yesterday we saw something rather remarkable on two counts.
Firstly, the publication of the very first official year-on-year comparisons of UK wellbeing, a
landmark moment in this new era of measuring what matters. And
secondly, we had the unexpected news that, as a nation, we've
actually become happier and less anxious over the last 12
months. Not hugely happier, but a statistically significant step in
the right direction nonetheless.
The proportion of people giving a high life satisfaction score
(7 or more out of 10) rose from 75.9% in 2012 to 77% in 2013. And
the proportion of people giving a low (i.e. positive) score for
"feeling anxious" (3 or less out of 10) rose from 60.1% to 61.5%.
That sounds promising, but how has this improvement in average
wellbeing been distributed across the population? Well, the ONS
hasn't yet provided a regional breakdown, but it does appear that
the people with the lowest wellbeing have seen some of the benefit.
For example, the proportion of people with a very low life
satisfaction score has fallen from 6.6% to 5.8% and the proportion
with a very high (i.e. negative) score for "feeling anxious" has
fallen from 21.8% to 20.9%. Encouragingly, it's not just a case of
the fairly happy folks getting even happier.
So what's going on here? Is this an "Olympics bounce", a
reflection of a slightly improving economic outlook or something
else? In a separate recent analysis, the ONS explored the
factors that most affect our personal wellbeing and identified
three that appear to make the biggest difference. The first is
whether we perceive our health to be good. The second is our
employment status, with unemployment clearly being very detrimental
to wellbeing. And the third is our marital status, with people who
are married or in civil partnerships being happier than those who
aren't. Of these, the most likely contributor to recent
improvements in national wellbeing is the slight reduction in
unemployment over the last year, which is clearly welcome, although
levels remain worryingly high.
But I believe the ONS analysis is missing some vitally important
contributors to wellbeing. Research suggests that the external
circumstances of our lives generally have a smaller impact on our
happiness than our attitudes and actions. And at Action for Happiness, our review of the latest
evidence has identified ten areas where actions we take as
individuals tend to increase our wellbeing. We call these
the Ten Keys to Happier
Living. They include having positive relationships and strong
social connections, giving to others, being mindful, staying
physically active, taking a resilient approach to adversity,
pursuing life goals and being part of something bigger than
ourselves. These are the real drivers of wellbeing just as much as
having a job, good health or being married.
The ONS identified the Jubilee celebrations and Olympics as
factors that may have contributed to our boost in wellbeing since
last year. I suspect this may indeed be true. But if so, this is
not thanks to our love of the Royal Family or our outstanding
sporting success. It's because these events encouraged actions
which helped us to connect in our communities, to share enjoyable
times together and to feel part of something bigger. Although these
once-in-a-lifetime events won't be repeated any time soon, there's
still so much more we can do to create and maintain those community
connections and that positive and outward-looking spirit.
Finally, the ONS has also uncovered some rather startling
findings regarding people's levels of anxiety. Some of the most
anxious people are those who, you might imagine, have least to
worry about. For example, people in higher professional occupations
report more anxiety than those in lower supervisory and technical
occupations. People with the highest levels of education are more
anxious than people with lower educational attainment. And most
surprisingly, people who live in the least deprived areas actually
report higher levels of anxiety than those who live in the most
deprived areas. This is a timely reminder that anxiety, and indeed
depression, are classless and affect people from all walks of life.
Many of those we hold up as role models and paragons of success are
actually trapped in busy and stressful lives where they feel under
constant pressure and unhappy. As Arianna Huffington says, it's
time for us to redefine what we mean by success.
So this move towards measuring wellbeing should be warmly
welcomed. It's a call for governments to place a greater focus on
the things that affect people's quality of life - and nothing could
be more important. But it's also a reminder for each of us that
real success and happiness come from a balanced life, with time to
connect with the people around us and to focus on the things that
Mark Williamson is Director of Action for Happiness.
Politics of Happiness