National Well-being Index: initial results and second ONS consultation

By December 20, 2011Uncategorized

The development of a National Well-being Index continues with the publication of a report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) entitled: ‘Initial investigation into Subjective Wellbeing from the Opinions Survey‘. The report received lots of TV and newspaper coverage, which focused on the apparently surprising happiness of the UK public at a time of economic gloom.

The report gives the early results from four overall monitoring questions introduced into ONS surveys from April 2011 to show how they are likely to perform. It explores the differences between them with the questions analysed by key characteristics including those relating to what people told ONS was important in the earlier Measuring National Well-being ‘National Debate’. It also shows how the additional subjective well-being questions that were asked over this period compare with one another and to the four overall monitoring questions.


The key results from the initial survey were:

  • Three quarters of adults in Great Britain rated their own life satisfaction with a score of seven or more out of 10  and those in employment were found to be happier than the unemployed. However satisfaction with ‘financial situation’ (6.2 out of 10) had the lowest mean score, followed by ‘work situation’ (6.7 out of 10) and also ‘with time to do the things you like doing’ (6.8 out of 10). When asked about satisfaction with the balance between ‘time spent on paid work and on other aspects of life’, there were lower scores, with an average of 6.4 out of 10. People were most satisfied on average with their ‘personal relationships’ and ‘mental well-being’ which had the highest mean scores (both at 8.3 out of 10).
  • When asked, ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ the majority (76 per cent) of adults (aged 16 and over) were estimated to have a rating of 7 out 10 or more. However, a minority (8 per cent) were estimated to be below 5 out of 10. The mean score for this question was 7.4 out of 10. When asked, ‘Overall, to what extent do you think the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’ a slightly larger proportion (78 per cent) of adults rated this at 7 or more out of 10. A lower proportion of adults gave lower ratings to this question, with 6 per cent giving a rating below 5 out of 10. The mean score for the ‘worthwhile’ question was higher than the ‘life satisfaction’ question at 7.6 out of 10.
  • When asked, ‘Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?’ again the majority (73 per cent) of adults responded with 7 or more out of 10. However, the spread of ratings was wider than for the ‘life satisfaction’ and ‘worthwhile’ questions. For example a higher proportion of people gave higher ratings (36 per cent giving 9 or 10 out of 10) to the ‘happy yesterday’ question as well as lower scores (12 per cent below 5 out of 10). The mean score for the ‘happiness yesterday’ question was 7.4 out of 10.
  • When asked, ‘Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?’ the ratings were even more spread out. Although over half (57 per cent) had ratings of less than 4 out of 10, a sizeable proportion (27 per cent) of people had ratings above 5 out of 10 (that is, closer to 10, feeling ‘completely anxious’ than 0, ‘not at all anxious’). The mean score for this question was 3.4 out of 10.

When estimates are examined by age there appears to be a ‘U shaped’ distribution for the ‘life satisfaction’, ‘worthwhile’ and ‘happy yesterday’ questions. Younger and older adults in Great Britain reported higher levels to these questions on average than people in their middle years. Highest levels were for those aged 16 to 19 and aged 65 to 74. The Economist magazine has previously reported on this ‘U Bend of life‘ age distribution. For ‘anxious yesterday’, this pattern does not appear in the data, which seems to be a new addition to research on the subject.

It was also possible to examine how the four subjective well-being monitoring questions are related with some of the areas that the national debate identified as important for well-being, for example, ‘health’, ‘personal relationships’, ‘job satisfaction and economic security’. In the last case unemployment was used as a proxy for this area:

  • ‘Life satisfaction’, ‘worthwhile’ and ‘happy yesterday’ are all positively associated with self-reported health; that is, the better health someone reports the more likely they are on average to report higher ratings for these questions. For ‘anxious yesterday’ the opposite is true, with higher mean scores associated with lower levels of self-reported health.
  • Having a partner is also positively associated with the ‘life satisfaction’, ‘worthwhile’ and ‘happiness yesterday’ questions. On average, adults who are married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting reported higher mean ratings than those who are single, widowed, divorced, separated or formerly in a civil partnership.
  • Mean ratings of the ‘life satisfaction’ ‘worthwhile’ and ‘happy yesterday’ are all lower for those who are unemployed than those who are employed or economically inactive. However, the largest difference in the mean was for the ‘life satisfaction’ question compared with the ‘worthwhile’ and ‘happiness yesterday’ questions, where the differences were smaller.

This early research shows some interesting differences. However the big question is why? One of the issues is that people have different motivational needs. For example some people may put a much higher premium on safety and security whereas others see status or innovation as the key driver at this stage of their life. So far the ONS data does not cover these sort of differences. The other danger is that as this survey receives more media coverage then a social norm might emerge. Will some people admit to being unhappy to such direct questioning if they keep reading news that over 7 out of 10 claim they are happy? There is thus the need for more indirect questioning and more proxies to measure people’s underlying motivations and attitudes and for this to comparable with global academic research such as the World Values Survey.

At the same time as many people say they are personally happy, nevertheless there are high levels of pessimism as to the prospects of future generations. Recently the Observer newspaper published a special report it had commissioned from Ipsos Mori which showed two-thirds of people believed their children would have lower living standards than their parents. The report said:

Recent history of opinion surveys shows that while people can be very miserable about their own immediate circumstances, they have tended to believe things will be better for their offspring than they have been for themselves. That assumption of rising standards, based on a belief in economic growth, has informed politics and policy making for generations. But these polling figures suggest a historic shift is under way.

How do we take account of high levels of both personal happiness and pessimism towards the future? How ‘historic’ is the shift the Observer article describes? At present the ONS questions do not provide illumination.

We have previously argued here that these differences in terms of drivers as to what makes people happy at various points to their lives needs to be understood in order to make the most of the data. Otherwise ONS will end up with a long time series of information that contributes little to public policy and in the end is questioned over whether it provides value for money in these challenging economic times. Values based segmentation could supplement the current ONS data as it enables us to combine views on current needs and motivations with levels of happiness and pessimism along with beliefs towards authoritarianism v libertarianism and materialism v non-materialism.


Methodological testing and development continues and ONS says it has published the material in order to involve users at an early stage and to allow feedback; not only on what these data show but also on how the results have been presented. The ONS has also recently launched its latest consultation and discussion paper on the proposed National Well-being Index, which closes on 23 January for those who are interested in contributing their view based on the material now available.

This consultation seeks views on a proposed set of domains (ie aspects of national well-being) and headline indicators which are outlined in the discussion paper. These factors, described by the proposed domain names, and the central role of individual well-being are set out in Figure 1.

National Well-being framework

Figure 1. National Well-being framework

TCC have previously commented on the development of the Index during the first consultation and no doubt we will be sending in further views nearer to the close of the consultation.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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