Should government promote ‘Optimism’ and ‘Resilience’ rather than ‘Happiness’?

By January 23, 2012Uncategorized

We have previously blogged about the latest consultation and discussion paper by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) on the development of a National Well-being Index. This closes today (23 January) for those who are interested in contributing their view based on the material now available.

Having commented on the first consultation, TCC have now submitted the following comments to the latest consultation:

TCC Submission to Office for National Statistics (ONS) consultation on the development of a Well-Being Index – extract

Section A: Proposed domains

1.    Do you think the proposed domains present a complete picture of well-being? If not, what would you do differently?

Two elements seem to missing: measurement of optimism versus pessimism and also measurement of motivation and self-efficacy. Without those elements the well-being index is useful for academic research, but not as useful for policy interventions.

2.    Do you think the scope of each of the proposed domains is correct? If not, please give details.    

The scope of each domain is broadly right as it covers, personal, social and structural & design factors that behaviour change theory deems essential for effective policy interventions.

3.    Are there any areas where proposed domains should be merged or divided further? If yes, please give details. 

Our relationships is an area that could also cover a recognition of what social networks we inhabit. Good relationships benefit from strong social networks. Christakis and Fowler set this out in their book Connected.

Whilst most people have good social networks, the research seems to indicate that a minority are likely to in effect have ‘toxic’ ones from a health and well-being perspective. It is therefore disappointing that your three domains do not make reference to this. There are now translatable interventions that can map and address social networks that are being pioneered by the RSA and collaborators in their Connected Communities Project.

4.    Are the names chosen for the proposed domains easy to understand? If not, please give details.    

The names perhaps underplay the ‘social’ elements of well-being that I describe in earlier answers.

5.    Do you think that the proposed domains adequately reflect the responses to the national debate?    

Yes / No / Don’t Know

Section B: Proposed Measures

6.    Should any of the measures be removed? If yes, please give details.    

Not specifically. The number of indicators should not be restricted by an arbitrary limit. The measurement of that should in the end be usefulness to public policy. However see answer to Question 7.

7.    Are there any measures which should be added? If yes, please give details. If an alternative measure is suggested, which measure might be removed, to keep the total number the same?   

In terms of additions within the Individual Well-being domain:

a) A measure of optimism

b) Measures of motivation

The current recession and the decline in economic opportunities is having an impact on people’s optimism. For those with low optimism, levels of motivation may also decline.

If the National Well-being Indicators are to be useful in terms of identifying the factors that can contribute to public policy in getting the UK out a prolonged stagnating recession over the next decade, measurement of optimism is arguably important to track against economic indicators to see whether confidence is returning to the economy in order for more people to take entrepreneurial risk to create the jobs and sustainable growth needed in the coming years.

Optimism and the motivation to act on it is also important from a public health perspective. Even if a better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health. Researchers studying heart-disease patients found that optimists were more likely than non-optimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under 60 were more likely to die within eight months than non-pessimistic patients of the same initial health, status and age.

More on this agenda is addressed in Tali Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias.

The big opportunity for those working in public policy is therefore not to promote the objective of ‘happiness’, which in every person, will always be impacted by personal challenges such as divorce, redundancy and death through the life cycle, but instead to utilise the measurements referred to above to promote ways to achieve more ‘optimism’ (and thus motivation) in people as an alternative approach to creating fleeting moments of ‘happiness’. That is what these indicators would really help us working in this field with.

If one did need to remove items to make way for the suggested items above, the following are suggested:

a) Long hours. The survey assumes this is a bad thing for well-being, however for some people this is a motivator.

b) Crime per capita. This is an external challenge which differently affects people. Indeed fear of crime (which is definitely worth keeping) does not always correlate with crime itself and often is higher in low crime areas.

However the number of indicators should not be restricted by an arbitrary limit. The measurement of that should in the end be usefulness to public policy.

8.    Are there any variants on the measures suggested which would be more appropriate? If yes, please give details.

Values based segmentation as academic recorded across many countries in the World Values Survey (WVS). This is a global research project that explores people’s values and beliefs, how they change over time and what social and political impact they have. It is carried out by a worldwide network of social scientists led by Shalom Schwarz and Ronald Inglehart, who, since 1981, have conducted representative national surveys in almost 100 countries. The WVS is the only source of empirical data on attitudes covering a majority of the world’s population (nearly 90%) and thus the National Well-being Index would then contribute to that.

Most significantly the WVS records, as part of it survey, questions on optimism and motivation in view of the impact they have on values that people then hold. UK-based data, dating back nearly 40 years, which is readily available, could be used to record the two elements I refer to in answer to Question 7.

9.    If only one or two measures should be used (for each domain), which ones should be chosen?   

The number of indicators should not be restricted by an arbitrary limit. The measurement of that should in the end be usefulness to public policy.

10.     Is the number of measures about right? Please give details.    

No, because the number of indicators should not be restricted by an arbitrary limit. The measurement of that should in the end be usefulness to public policy.

11.     Is the balance between objective and subjective measures about right? Please give details.  

It is clear we need a mix of these. Subjective measures may well pick up ‘weak signals’ of a change long before the subjective measures record them.

One of the key points we make is to question one of the underlying assumptions of the National Well-being Index: that the government should be promoting ‘happiness’ as a policy objective. Apart from happiness being such a personal thing, the average human life-cycle faces many challenges from death of parents, to exam failure to redundancy to divorce or relationship break-up, that it is difficult to see it as an effective objective. In our previous blog posting we said:

Understanding and measuring well-being is an issue rising up the public policy agenda, with movements such as Action for Happiness launched recently to promote the ideas around Happiness Economics put forward by Richard Layard. There are also other more holistic approaches promoted by those advocating Positive Psychology such as Martin Seligman’s Flourish. These recognise the need, at the same time as promoting happiness, to strengthen the resilience and “grit” of individuals to deal with the inevitable bad things in life; eg death of a loved one, divorce, even moving house, that promoting “happiness ” in general is unlikely to eliminate, but which also make us measure and appreciate the actual happy moments in life more. This approach also applies to building resilience in communities, where the state clearly has a role and responsibility to assist people. However as we argue in our submission, this support has often been narrowly interpreted in the past, which is why broader approaches need to be considered in future.

As we point out in our submission above, qualities such as optimism are much more relevant to public policy, than securing more ‘happiness’ as greater optimism combined with motivation empowers people to find their own happiness on their own terms.

From values research it is noticeable that the number of the most optimistic values set, the Outer Directed Prospectors has declined from 45% of the population in 2004 to 22% in 2011, whilst the least optimistic values set; security and safety driven Settlers; has doubled from 21% to 42% of the UK population,  Much of this may stem from the decline in personal economic optimism as a result of the recession, but may also reflect a more general fear of the rapidity of globalised and technological change. The table below shows this values shift:

Table 1: UK Values Changes 2004-2011




























Optimism enables us to address times of unhappiness. A pessimistic person who is unhappy may find it harder to motivate themselves to improve their situation than an optimistic person in similar circumstances. Dr Tali Sharot at University College London has written The Optimism Bias on this subject. Extracts were recently published in the Observer.

If optimism is currently in short supply, the base from which people can become more optimistic is through being more resilient in hard times. TCC are currently working on projects mapping community resilience and examining potential interventions in less well-off areas impacted by the recession. Today, for example, we received data (Table 2 below) on three areas in a locality which has gone through substantial change with large numbers of new migrants to the locality, who do have high levels of optimism as a result of moving to a new area to seek their fortune. This average of 47% of outer-directed Prospectors across the 3 areas is more than double the national average for that values group shown in Table 1 above.

Table 2: Values data for Resilience project

  Settler Prospector Pioneer
Area A




Area B




Area C








However as can be seen there may well be higher levels of pessimism amongst other people who may have very little contact with and hold different values to those newcomers who are broadly optimistic.

The next stage will be creating local interventions with the right communication and appropriate messengers that bring together people with more optimistic values with those who hold pessimistic values to create a broadly more optimistic social norm in communities that need it the most. We will report more on this research in due course.

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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