Getting to Grips with the UK’s Well-being

Yesterday, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its first Annual Report on Measuring National Well-being (MNW).

The MNW programme was set up in October 2010 in response to the acknowledgement that traditional economic measures of progress such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not provide a complete picture of how society is doing. The stated aim of the MNW programme is to “develop and publish an accepted and trusted set of national statistics which help people understand and monitor well-being.”

ONS Wheel of Well-Being

ONS Wheel of Well-Being

Well-being Measurements

Yesterday’s Annual Report attempts to describe the UK’s well-being under three broad headings of the economy, people and the environment. Within these areas, the programme identifies 10 different domains including governance, personal finance, the natural environment, where we live, what we do, and, at its core, individual well-being.

Within the 10 domains are many and varied statistics and measures (40 in total), some traditional and some new, for example:

  • Life satisfaction
  • % rating happiness yesterday
  • % rating anxiety yesterday
  • % rating how worthwhile are the things they do
  • Unemployment rate
  • % finding it quite or very difficult to get by financially
  • Satisfaction with family life
  • Satisfaction with social life
  • % with evidence of probable mental ill health
  • Satisfaction with amount/use of leisure time
  • Job satisfaction
  • % aged 16-64 with no educational qualifications
  • % feeling they belong to their neighbourhood
  • Satisfaction with health

The first four measures are in the core ‘individual well-being’ domain. You could argue that these come closest to well-being as positive psychologists would understand it.

[A link to the complete list of the domains and measures used in the ONS MNW Annual Report, as well as the most recent data collected, can be found in Annex A on page 60]

Positive Psychology in a Nutshell

Positive Psychology in a Nutshell

Reading through the MNW domains and measures prompted me to revisit the table of correlates with subjective well-being outlined in Dr Ilona Boniwell’s book, Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (a gem of a book, now in its 3rd edition). According to Boniwell, it would be worth examining and measuring the following factors because they are correlated with subjective well-being:

  • Leisure
  • Social connections
  • Subjective health
  • Sleep and exercise, and
  • Social class

Only the first three of these are actually measured in the MNW programme. But interestingly, the MNW includes other measures which according to Boniwell aren’t correlated with well-being, such as:

  • Education level
  • Crime
  • Housing
  • Money (above the amount needed to meet basic needs)
  • Objective health

Why the Difference?

There are two possible reasons for this. First, it depends, of course, what we mean by ‘national well-being’. It could be defined as the sum of the individual well-being of all its citizens, in which case the five factors mentioned above would be irrelevant. The ONS approach to measuring national well-being, however, is slightly different. It is based on a report, written by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, on measuring economic performance, social progress, and environmental sustainability in France, which also calls for a global debate about “…societal values, for what we, as a society, care about, and whether we are really striving for what is important” (p18). This wider definition of well-being, based on social progress, means that other measures (like the five above) have a place.

Secondly, the ONS has reported that it wanted to ‘develop measures based on what people tell us matters most’ because statistics need to be relevant. I’m all for doing everything possible to enable ordinary people to have a voice in government-led initiatives. However, you can’t escape from the fact that people don’t know what they don’t know. This is true of well-being. If people knew what was good for their well-being they wouldn’t continue to pursue financial wealth with the zeal they do. They wouldn’t continue to shop, shop, shop at the rate they do. People would, amongst other things, focus instead on developing better relationships with neighbours, family, and colleagues, spend more time with their children, see more of their friends, exercise more, spend more time outside in nature, and eat less junk food. Wouldn’t they?

nef learning

nef learning

Reaching for a Growth Mindset

We also have to consider the possible implications of including measures which the public says are important, but which positive psychology research suggests aren’t correlated with individual well-being. It may distort priorities. The likelihood is that time, effort, and money will be spent on developing and implementing policies and programmes of action which ultimately have no impact on individual well-being.

Take education. The MNW report cites the new economics foundation’s (nef) work on the importance of learning as a way of developing social interaction, self-esteem, and feelings of competency. All positive psychologists would agree that educational qualifications aren’t necessarily the same thing as learning. If we consider Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, we could say that obtaining qualifications is more fixed mindset and learning more growth mindset.

We in the UK have just woken up to the fact that focusing on targets to increase school exam passes year-on-year can be counterproductive. So, we could be successful in raising the level of educational qualification in the UK and still find it makes no difference to individual well-being. What would have more impact on both national and individual well-being would be to find ways to promote a national growth mindset instead.

Conclusion

The first Annual Report of the Measuring National Well-being programme makes a fascinating and absorbing read, even if you are not keen on statistics and graphs, and even if you’re not a UK citizen. Whatever your interest in positive psychology and well-being, you’re sure to find something in it which surprises you, such as the percentage of UK citizens living below the poverty line, healthy life expectancy, the percentage of people reporting happiness and high anxiety yesterday. The report may prompt you to question your understanding of the subject and how you can promote well-being for others, whether in your work or in life generally.

If you can’t face the full 63 pages, check out the National Well-being Interactive Wheel of Measures, a simpler way of getting to grips with the UK’s well-being in 2012.

Let me know what you think.

References

Boniwell, I. (2006). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (2nd Edn). London: PWBC.

new economics foundation (2011). Five ways to well-being: New applications, new ways of thinking.

Self, A., Thomas, J. & Randall, C. (2012). Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK, 2012. Office for National Statistics.

Stiglitz, J., Sen, A. & Fitoussi, JP. Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

This article Getting to Grips with the UK’s Well-Being authored by Bridget Grenville-Cleave was originally publishedon PositivePsychologyNews.com on 21st November 2012.

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