One of the roles of a What Works Centre is to identify research gaps. Evidence gaps don’t mean that something does or doesn’t work, it means no one knows…yet. Sometimes, the evidence gaps are really surprising: this is one of those times. We found no evaluations of the impact of using the popular, evidence-based, Five Ways to Wellbeing framework to guide interventions.

The Five Ways to Wellbeing are evidence-based actions that people can do in their daily lives, or can be designed into policies and services, that should improve wellbeing: Connect, Give, Learn, Take notice; Be Active. They were developed in 2008 based on a Government Office for Science Foresight Report into Mental Capital and wellbeing. They are widely used by diverse organisations interested in promoting wellbeing as a framework or a set of heuristics or rules of thumb.

Our community wellbeing team had planned to do a systematic review of the impact of interventions using the Five Ways. They conducted thorough searches of published and unpublished literature to identify any evidence of community wellbeing impacts of Five Ways, and similar, interventions. Unfortunately, the searches revealed virtually no evaluations, and no rigorous evaluations, of Five Ways interventions implemented as a whole. We did find one evaluation of a pilot programme

There is an academic evidence base for each individual actions in the Five Ways. There is also now more up-to-date research on the relationship between each of the Five Ways and wellbeing. Recently, for the first time, a team looked at European Social Survey data to analyse patterns of Five Ways behaviour across Europe. They found that there is a relationship between participation in the Five Ways participation and levels of wellbeing. A summary of the findings relating to the UK is here.

All of this makes it especially surprising that no one has yet evaluated the impact of using the Five Ways framework. This is subtly, but importantly, different from research on the impact of each of the Five Ways. These evaluations of using the Five Ways framework could tell us about the relative benefits of pursuing the Five Ways in connection with each other, or the effectiveness of the Five Ways messaging as a communications tool. It can also tell us about how using the Five Ways together could add up to more than the sum of their parts as a way to improve wellbeing.

This is not unique to the Five Ways; is true for many actions taken and is where there can be big gains in our collective learning about improving wellbeing.  This learning can really help smaller or community organisations with little or no evaluation budgets, for example, be confident that what they are doing will help and helps us collectively build on what’s already known rather than ‘re-creating the wheel’. This is where it is important to target research and evaluation effort:

Organisations implement things all the time that impact on wellbeing but they hardly ever evaluate them properly.  Knowing what works, why they work and how they work are key data points that should inform any business decision.  Standard measures of wellbeing are now available – failing to use them risks squandering the money of shareholders and taxpayers.  Once we do measure impact we have a moral duty to share that knowledge so others can benefit from our experience and the wellbeing of our society as a whole can be improved.    

Dr Paul Litchfield, Chairman

There seems to have been little progress on evaluation of Five Ways interventions since 2011. Back then, the NHS Confederation concluded that ‘although there is research that tells us something about the ways that the framework can be used, it tells us nothing about which uses are more or less effective in improving wellbeing.’

The team have not reviewed the evidence on impacts of the individual components of Five Ways, each being potentially large-scale bodies of evidence, and reviews. The areas of ‘give, take notice, be active, keep learning, connect’ will likely all have increased evidence in the last ten years. Our research on sport, dance and young people, adult learning or social relations suggest this would be the case. This is an evidence gap that would also be worth looking at in future.

If you’ve carried out an evaluation of an intervention that used the framework, or are planning to, please let us know so we can begin building an evidence base. You can email us at info@whatworkswellbeing.org.

Case Study: West Sussex Wellbeing and Resilience Framework

West Sussex are using the framework to support and guide the ‘entire system’: including public, private, community and voluntary services, and communities themselves. The County Council want to better understand and strengthen the things that make people’s lives go well.

The key aim identified by West Sussex is to increase positive social connections; reducing the number of people socially isolated and experiencing feelings of loneliness.

Outcomes resulting from a system-wide approach to improving resilience and wellbeing and potential measures affected will include:  

  • An increase in the quantity and quality of social connections, and reduced social isolation and feelings of loneliness.- with potential measures being:
    • % of adult social care users / carers in West Sussex have as much social contact as they would like
    • % of residents who feel there are enough people they feel close to
  • Improved readiness for school. Potential measure being:
    • % of children achieving a good level of development at the end of reception
  • Improved population wellbeing. Potential measure being:
    • Demonstration that children, young people and adults of all ages are supported to identify and apply their personal strengths.

Here is a visualisation of the framework in the West Sussex strategy.