Which way to happy: Data is a map, now we need to figure out the way

The first annual results of the ‘Measuring National Wellbeing Programme’ showed happiness and subjective wellbeing vary between groups and locations.

E-mail-sign-up Donate



Gaia Marcus is a researcher for the RSA

The first annual results of the ‘Measuring National Wellbeing Programme’ showed that happiness and subjective wellbeing vary between groups and locations.

Happy-peopleWhilst figures like ‘Average Happiness is 7.4’ pervade the media, not that much attention has been paid to the fact that:

i). Averages tell us very little; and

ii). A lot of people are not doing well.

The ‘Happiness figures’ cannot be the end of the (news) story: we know should figure out what they actually mean, and what to do about it.

Individual and community wellbeing will be improved by understanding context, by delving deeper. This does not mean that we should stop measuring at a national level.

What it does mean is that these measurements are less useful unless we start looking at local stories, at how people got where they are. What is it about people’s choices and life-courses that end up making them happy?

Now that there are starting figures, a baseline of sorts, the real research and project experimentation needs to start. One in five people do not feel their lives are all that worthwhile; one in four people do not feel all that satisfied with their lives; one in three are not all that happy; and almost *half* of all people report having either very high or high anxiety.

To ensure that this research isn’t just salt in the wound, it needs to be backed up by initiatives that can make things better.

These initiatives need to happen on many levels. On an individual and person-to-to-person level I think we should talk about happiness and life satisfaction more. This might be talking about your ‘five a day for your mind’, or just a catch-up where you are allowed to say that you are not ‘fine’.

I think that funders and local authorities should be more open to experimentation, and researchers should be more on hand in helping with evaluation: like in this ‘does it work’ guide. Nationally, a two-fold approach might work: a multitude of small-scale projects and a national-level discussion.

The measurement of well-being should be complemented by a programme of small interventions which – using the new ONS measures – seek to prove whether their approaches add to participant’s wellbeing. The RSA is currently in the middle of a four-year, seven-site project that seeks to see which projects add to wellbeing and social connections, and you can imagine a nationally or local-authority-led series of programmes that seeks to do the same.

Measure people’s wellbeing, work with them to create local projects, see what their well-being looks like at the end: did anything get better?


See also:

Want to know how to be happy? It’s complicated! 27 Jul 2012


National discussion is needed to ensure these approaches really hit the mainstream. Austerity might be biting, but low wellbeing is costly, some suggest to a cost of £100 billion a year. There is a lot of great work in this space already, but we need conversations about health and wellbeing to reach the mainstream, not just middleclass yoga-types or those already ill. These projects will not solve unemployment or sink estates, but they might help isolation, depression and feelings of not being in control.

So, what is the way to happy? More experimentation is needed nationally on the part of the government, funders, local authorities, and people like you: if you needed directions, you’d be best off just asking. So let’s start talking about what the right direction might be.


Sign-up to our weekly email • Donate to Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.