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Aug 14, 2019 | by Centre

UK personal and economic wellbeing: three questions to ask

Today’s blog comes from Deborah Hardoon, Head of Evidence at the Centre, and is a reflection on this week’s release from the Office for National Statistics, showing little movement in personal wellbeing in the UK between April 2018 to March 2019. Economic wellbeing was also measured for the period of January to March 2019.

In April 2018 the National living wage for people over 25 increased from £7.50 to £7.83 an hour, while knife crimes reached the highest level since records began. In the year following, until March 2019, we had a royal wedding in May. There was also a long, hot summer that featured a series of record breaking wildfires; a strong performance by England men’s team reaching the semi-finals in the World Cup in July; and renewable energy capacity overtook that of fossil fuels in the UK for the first time. During this year, Brexit dominated national headlines, with all the political and economic uncertainty that comes with it, as the exit deadline of 29th March, and then 12th April 2019, looming.  

How did all of this, and everything else that has happened in our lives and our communities make us feel? This Monday, the Office for National Statistics updated the data measuring the subjective wellbeing of people in the UK.

Key findings

  • In fact, we see that people’s personal wellbeing shows very little change in the UK in the year ending March 2019. 
  • A very small increase in the average ratings for self-reported happiness. 
  • This increase follows a slow but steady improvement in all of the main subjective wellbeing measures, including life satisfaction, feeling that life is worthwhile and a decline in anxiety, that we have seen since this data was first collected in 2012.

Linking with economic factors

The ONS now report these findings alongside a set of economic indicators, because we know that our financial situation can have an important impact on our wellbeing, with higher household spending more strongly related to how we rate our life satisfaction than higher household income, and whether or not we have a job mattering more than spending and income.

This year’s data found:

  • a small improvement in some household level indicators over the past year, including household spending and income.
  • low unemployment rate persisting over this period

So on average, for most people in the UK, this data release tells us that little has happened in the last year to shift the barometer of wellbeing one way or another. 

What else has changed?

The ONS dashboard of wellbeing indicators also tells us what the trend has been in the UK for other indicators, with little or no positive change across most of the 42 indicators, and a slight decline in job satisfaction and having people to rely on. So not much change to report there either.

Important questions to ask of the data

1. What happens when we look beyond the average?

The stagnation tells us that people who were struggling previously are still struggling today. Beyond the average, we see from this national data set that almost 8% of people in the UK, or 4.2 million, people reported a low level of happiness (a score of 0-4, where 0 is not at all happy and 10 is completely happy)

Later this year, the ONS will publish this data by country and region within the UK, helping provide a geographical understanding of how people are doing. Further interrogation of the differences between people and places helps us to understand who is struggling, who is thriving and why.

2. What impacts our wellbeing beyond economics?

The economic indicators capture just one dimension of life that affects wellbeing. Spending and income both matter less than:

  • our personal circumstances, particularly self reported health
  • marital status
  • whether we have a job.

More detailed data on all the determinants of wellbeing at the individual and community level help us to better understand the multiple and interrelated factors that affect our lives and how we are doing. 

3. How does the data help us act?

And yet we also know much better now what works to improve people’s wellbeing. So this data comes as a timely reminder to put all that knowledge into practice, through the resources and opportunities available, particularly at a time of a change in leadership in the UK, to work particularly for those that fall below the stable average in wellbeing.


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