Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK 2012

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In 2010 David Cameron announced plans for a new national survey, intended to provide an alternative measure of national happiness. At conception it was envisaged that the survey would complement more traditional, economic measures of national progress, through the measurement of subjective indicators such as quality of life, with a view to potentially incorporating findings into policy-making [1].

On November 20th the first results of the National Well-being project were published. Following extensive public consultation, well-being was approached through the themes of economy, people and the environment. Salient findings that emanated from the results of the first wave include:

Economy: The 2008 recession has taken a significant economic toll on the British public, with increases in both real household income per head and GDP gained in the first eight years of the millennium, receding post 2008 [2].

People: The recession has also resulted in greater unemployment, particularly for young people. Despite this negative bearing, measures of life satisfaction have remained fairly constant over the last decade. Healthy life expectancy has increased according to measures from 2002 to 2008, with an extra 2.8 and 3.3 years for men and women respectively [2].

: Over half of the interviewees in England visited the natural environment at least once a week in 2011/2012. Use of renewable and waste energy sources more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, and the total extent of protected land and sea in the UK increased by over 3.8 million hectares from 2005 to 2011, all representing significant progress within the environmental domain [2].

Over all, well-being was found to be highest for the young and old, with younger people aged 16-19 and older people aged 65-79 rating their well-being at 7.7 and 7.8 out of ten respectively, compared with 7.1 and 7.2 among those aged between 40 -59. Anxiety levels were also found to be lower among the younger and older age groups, in comparison with their middle aged peers. A similar age-based trend could be observed in terms of satisfaction with social life, with those aged 16 to 24 and 55 and over more likely to report that they were somewhat, mostly or completely satisfied with their social life, 75.7 and 71.7 respectively. This compares with 58.2% of those aged 35 to 44 and 62.1% of those aged 45 to 54 [2].

While there are some misgivings as to the practical utility of attempting to measure such a subjective concept as personal well-being, a case can nevertheless be made for looking beyond the typical, formulaic measures of societal progress that are invariably related to economic growth. That being said, the degree to which the National Well-being project is drawn upon in formulating future social policy remains to be seen.

In his seminal work – Britain on the Couch – Why We’re Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite Being Richer – psychologist and public intellectual Oliver James makes the argument that despite Britain’s colossal economic growth since the 1950s, we as a society are fundamentally less content, with blame apportioned to the competitive nature of modern society [3]. Additionally, research into developing a subjective measurement of quality of life in older age has found that psychological and social factors have much to contribute, rather than simply objective indicators such as home ownership, income or education [4]. These findings reinforce the idea that we need to look outside purely fiscal measures to see how society is doing.

Bhutan provides an interesting case study for this debate, the small and remote Himalayan Kingdom having replaced Gross Domestic Product with Gross National Happiness as its primary indicator of progress [5]. While it may be unlikely that the current Coalition Government will adopt such a radical stance in relation to measuring national progress, the inauguration of the National Well-being project will certainly widen the debate as to how best government should channel its resources and efforts into improving the lives of its citizens.

Trinley Walker

[1] Wellbeing index points way to bliss: live on a remote island, and don’t work
[2] Office for National Statistics – Measuring Well-being: Life in the UK, 2012
[3] Oliver James – About Britain on the Couch
[4] Good Neighbours: Measuring Quality of Life in Old Age
[5] Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ Index

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