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Apr 18, 2024 | by Richard Crellin

New findings on what works to improve life satisfaction

Life satisfaction is a core component of subjective wellbeing. It encompasses our perceptions, opinions, and evaluations of our circumstances.

Questions that measure life satisfaction are some of the most routinely asked in wellbeing research, resulting in a rich and important body of literature. In our mission to identify and summarise evidence that uses crucial wellbeing measures, our latest project brings together a decade of life satisfaction evidence through two rapid reviews. 

Here, we introduce the research, key findings, recommendations for action, and what’s next.

What we did

We worked with researchers from Kohlrabi to conduct two rapid reviews  in response to the following research questions:

  1. What is the effectiveness of interventions aimed at improving life satisfaction across the life-course?
  2. What are the long-term determinants of life satisfaction?

The Intervention Review collated international evidence on activities, programmes or services intended to improve individual life satisfaction.

The Determinants Review used UK longitudinal data to update the evidence base of broad factors that are associated with life satisfaction at a population-level.

Each review was conducted separately but we used similar search criteria to ensure they would be complementary. Together, they provide a broad overview of the current evidence base on life satisfaction and what works to improve it.

Read more about our methodological approach in the summary briefing and full technical report.

What we found

The intervention review found a large body of international experimental research. In total we identified 189 studies which tested 234 different interventions to improve life satisfaction. 

The results were very mixed: 

  • Strong evidence that these are effective and improve life satisfaction. 
    • emotional skill development,
    •  psychological therapies, 
    • exercise, and 
    • some emotion-based interventions
  • No effective interventions including visualisation, reflection or inter-personal social emotional activities were identified.
  • Unclear evidence on whether music or changes in social media use can improve life satisfaction.
  • Evidence gaps in the interventions literature included relatively few interventions for working-age adults and a lack of  interventions for specific population groups like LGBTQ+ people or people with disabilities.

Figure 1 provides a visual of the number of different intervention types identified and their effectiveness. The strength of evidence is represented by the colour coded boxes.

A diagram showing the strength of life satisfaction evidence for different emotion-based activities, emotional development, health promotion, and relational activities. It uses colour coded boxes to show there is effective evidence for mindfulness, gratitude, therapy, and for emotional skill development and exercise. Mixed evidence was found for meditation, positivity, prosocial, resilience, emotional regulation, education, and multi-component activities. There is evidence that reflection, visualisation, and relational social activities are not effective. Insufficient evidence exists for social media and music.

The determinants review examined evidence gathered from 49 UK studies into life satisfaction that used longitudinal data. 

There was:

  • Strong evidence that education, employment, income, physical health, arts and culture have an established association with life satisfaction.
  • Mixed or weaker evidence about the impact of community belonging and cohesion, environment, and travel on life satisfaction.

This table shows the strength of evidence for different intervention themes and/or sub themes, and the number of studies found denoted by ‘n =’.

ThemeSubthemeDescriptionEvidence summary
Financial situations (n=12)*The effect of income, resource ownership and social mobilitySignificant with consistent associations across different cohorts
Education and Employment (n=14)Employment (n=9)The effect of job transitions and working conditionsSignificant with consistent associations across different cohorts
Education and Employment (n=14)Education (n=5)The effect of qualifications and learningSignificant with consistent associations across different cohorts
Social capital (n=12)3.1 Community (n=7)The effect of belonging including citizenship, internal migration, neighbourhood participation, lonelinessInconclusive. Only change of address (internal
migration) had a significant positive association
Social capital (n=12)Social support (n=5)The effect of relationships, including social networks, informal
caregiving, parenthood and living together
Significant with consistent associations across different cohorts
Health (n=11)Physical and mental health (n=6)The effect of poor healthSignificant but with inconsistent associations across different cohorts
Health (n=11)Health
The effect of diet and exerciseInconclusive
Fruit and vegetables intake (positive association) and problem drinking (negative association).
Environment (n=4)The effect of infrastructure, access to blue and green spaces, commutingInconclusive
Perception of public transport access was significantly
Arts and culture (n=5)The effect of participation and engagementSignificant but with inconsistent associations across different cohorts

*n= number of studies in each theme/sub-theme. n does not sum to 49 as many studies explored multiple factors.

You can find a summary of key insights from each review in our briefing, and full research findings in the technical report

Recommendations for action

These two rapid reviews provide useful insights into what works to improve life satisfaction. They also pose challenges for policymakers and the research community. 

To improve life satisfaction at a population level, policymakers can use the evidence identified in the determinants review to drive changes in factors like employment, education and health.

The most high-quality evidence available is for individual emotion-based activities. While these interventions are robustly trialled and may generate important improvements in life satisfaction, they are not the only things that are likely to produce the long-term sustainable wellbeing generated through a good education, stable and satisfying employment, strong relationships and good health.

Working to create more connections between these two bodies of evidence will be crucial in the next decade to ensure that wellbeing improves across society.

We recommend: 

  • Focusing resources and capacity on addressing the most difficult methodological challenges in life satisfaction intervention research. By supporting efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions at a neighbourhood, community or regional level, governments could help generate insight and interventions that could drive improvements to life satisfaction at a population level.
  • Prioritising the evaluation or trialling of interventions
    – in the workplace,
    – being delivered to vulnerable groups,
    – where there is currently insufficient evidence, such as music or social media interventions,
    – that are linked to important determinants of life satisfaction like employment, education or close social relationships.
  • Adding validated life satisfaction measures into existing and new evaluations of policies, projects and programmes.
  • Commissioning regular reviews of life satisfaction evidence to ensure research is rapidly identified and made available for decision-making, extending to include clinical populations, evidence from quasi-experimental studies and other countries.

To see more implications for researchers and recommendations for action, view the summary briefing.

What’s next

Alongside the report and briefing, we have produced a life satisfaction trials strategy. It will help policymakers and researchers identify next steps for strengthening and using the life satisfaction evidence base, drawing stronger connections between what we know about interventions and determinants.

Where possible, we have extracted the changes in life satisfaction brought about by different studies for use in calculating the social value of changes in wellbeing using the Treasury’s Green Book Wellbeing Supplementary Guidance in appraisal.  We have compiled these in a downloadable spreadsheet for use by policymakers and economists to support policy appraisal and calculating social value.

Guidance on how to evaluate wellbeing impacts, including appropriate measures, is available on our measuring wellbeing microsite.

Additionally, we are collating Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) to summarise the most important research questions for wellbeing over the coming years, and highlighting Practice in Need of Evidence (PINE). These are based on reflections from our 10 years at the forefront of wellbeing evidence generation, synthesis and implementation in the UK and around the world.

Further resources

Adult learning and life satisfaction briefing 

Measuring Wellbeing and cost-effectiveness analysis discussion paper 


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