Wellbeing index points way to bliss: live on a remote island, and don’t work

Wellbeing index points way to bliss: live on a remote island, and don’t work
Lizzy Davies and Simon Rogers

Do you live on the Western Isles, Orkney or Shetland? Work as a doctor or a lawyer? Are you married and over 65, in good health and a homeowner? If so, you may be one of the happiest people in Britain. On the other hand, if you happen to be a divorced, middle-aged machine operative living in Thurrock, Essex, you could well be one of the saddest – especially if, according to figures released on Tuesday, you’re a man.

As part of the government’s attempts to develop an alternative measure of national performance to GDP, the Office for National Statistics has published its first tranche of detailed subjective data exploring how happiness and anxiety levels vary according to factors including sex and ethnic group.

Responses by 165,000 people in the annual population survey reveal the average rating of "life satisfaction" in Britain is 7.4 out of 10 and 80% of people gave a rating of seven or more when asked whether the things they did in their lives were "worthwhile". But those levels vary widely, with residents of the local authority of Eilean Siar, Orkney & Shetland recording the UK’s highest satisfaction levels of 8.1 out of 10 and Thurrock last at 7.09, behind Blackburn with Darwen (7.1) and Blackpool (7.11). Asked how anxious they had felt the previous day, Middlesbrough scored most anxiety – 3.6 out of 10.

"By examining and analysing both objective statistics as well as subjective information, a more complete picture of national well-being can be formed," said ONS wellbeing project director Glenn Everett.

"Understanding people’s views of well-being is an important addition to existing official statistics and has potential uses in the policy making process and to aid other decision making."

According to the findings, age is a key determinate in how people estimate their own wellbeing, with feelings of satisfaction highest among 16- to 19-year-olds and 65- to 69-year-olds and slumping in between. The number of people rating their anxiety the previous day as high or very high grows steadily from the 20s through to 55, when it drops off.

Relationships also play a big part, with 82% of people in marriages or civil partnerships giving high or medium life satisfaction ratings, followed by cohabiting couples on 79%, single people on 71% and divorced people on 60%. Women also rated slightly higher on both the "life satisfaction" and the "worthwhile" question, but reported an average level of 3.3 for anxiety, compared with men’s three.

University administrator Rabina Akram-Choudhry, 48, said: "Women are happier than men for sure, because of what they’ve got to deal with – often both children and men! I think you can only smile at some of the stuff that happens because otherwise you’d probably scream. If you smile it keeps you young and stops you ageing prematurely. My attitude is enjoy life as much as you can. I’m fasting at the moment and I’m walking three miles in the really hot sun but it’s a beautiful day."

Far more significant, however, appears to be the impact of work: not only not having it – which leads twice as many unemployed people to rate their satisfaction levels as low or very low as those in a job – but also what kind of work you do. The highest average life satisfaction was reported by those in professional occupations such as teaching, medicine or law and was lowest among "process, plant and machine operatives".

"Black/African/Caribbean/Black British" respondents recorded the lowest average life satisfaction – 6.7 – compared with people of Indian origin on 7.5. The report said the differences could be down to "cultural bias", but added: "Another reason … could be due to certain ethnic groups experiencing disadvantage in certain areas of life such as education, income, health and living conditions".

But work is significant. Higher scores were given by groups of employees "with more responsibility and control over their work, as well as higher incomes".

Additional reporting by Hilary Aked

Professor Richard Layard, director of the Wellbeing programme at the LSE and a members of the ONS’s Measuring National Wellbeing Advisory Forum, said the data was a "huge step" towards policy-making with wellbeing as a priority and could also help improve focus on mental health care.

"I think this is a helpful step in the the sense that it puts people’s subjective states as the ultimate criterion," he said.

But the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Michael Dugher, derided the project as a "a statement of the bleeding obvious" and a waste of taxpayers’ money. David Cameron announced the £2m Measuring National Wellbeing project in 2010 as a way, he said, of providing a more complete way of measuring the country’s progress than the traditional economic data and incorporating subjective issues such as quality of life into policy-making.

Article can be viewed at  http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/24/national-wellbeing-index-annual-results