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Dec 11, 2023 | by Dr Elizabeth Simon

Using Understanding Society data to explore wellbeing in London

What influences Londoners’ wellbeing?

A recent report co-authored by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Centre for London, looked to answer this question, identifying the key determinants of wellbeing in London, based on an empirical analysis of Understanding Society data.

Here, one of the authors of the report, Dr Elizabeth Simon takes us through its findings and key learnings.


The success of London as a global city has typically been measured based on its material wealth or GDP. This is only a part of what drives quality of life. To gain a fuller picture, and understand wellbeing in London, we need to look at economic, societal and environmental indicators. 

Existing research has tended to show Londoners have lower levels of wellbeing on average, compared to those living in other parts of the UK, indicating that devising effective policy interventions to improve Londoners’ wellbeing is crucial if the city’s population is to thrive.

Our report What influences Londoners’ wellbeing, and what can help? analyses Understanding Society data to explore what influences Londoners’ wellbeing, and it suggests a series of evidence-based policy changes in these areas which could be effective in improving wellbeing.

Understanding Society is a large longitudinal study which asks the same people questions about their lives every few years. The wellbeing measure used in this study is the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS), which is a well-validated measure that asks people how much they agree with a series of positive statements about themselves over the last two weeks, such as “I have been feeling useful”.

What matters for Londoners’ wellbeing?

We used multiple regression analysis to identify the independent association of various environmental, social, behavioural, and socio-demographic factors, with Londoners’ wellbeing outcomes. 

After accounting for all others, we found four key areas were particularly influential.

  1. whether people work and how much autonomy they have over this
  2. satisfaction with leisure time
  3. satisfaction with health
  4. neighbourhood social cohesion.

While we don’t claim that these are the only important influences on Londoners’ wellbeing – for instance disability status, ethnic background and age also matter – we believe these determinants are central to the debate about how to enact policy that improves wellbeing outcomes across the city.

Insights based on key areas

Employment and autonomy

  • Londoners in jobs with high levels of autonomy tend to exhibit higher levels of wellbeing. This is compared to both those in jobs with comparably low levels of autonomy and those not employed (but not in retirement). 
  • For Londoners in low autonomy employment, more flexibility might make a difference. Measures, such as determining job tasks, pace, manner and working hours, may be one route to improving wellbeing outcomes in the capital. 

Alternative solutions must be offered to improve the wellbeing of those Londoners not currently in employment.

Satisfaction with leisure time

  • Londoners who are satisfied with their leisure time typically have better wellbeing outcomes than those who are not. This finding does not hold for those employed in jobs with low levels of autonomy. 

This suggests that implementing policies which bolster satisfaction with leisure time do not hold the key to improving wellbeing for all Londoners; unless this happens alongside measures to increase workplace autonomy.

Satisfaction with health

  • Londoners who report feeling satisfied with their health tend to have better wellbeing than those who do not – though this is not the case for those who do not report having a long-standing physical or mental impairment, illness or disability. 
  • Feelings of dissatisfaction with health appear to pose a significant barrier to wellbeing for Londoners with disabilities and longstanding conditions.

These results suggest improving satisfaction with health would provide an effective means of achieving more equitable wellbeing outcomes in the capital.

Improving Londoners’ satisfaction with their health could entail a range of measures, from reducing unhealthy stress – including that caused by the cost-of-living crisis and inadequate housing – to designing services and places so that people with different needs can participate in them fully. 

Neighbourhood social cohesion

  • On average, Londoners living in areas with low levels of social cohesion have substantially worse wellbeing outcomes than those living in areas with high levels of social cohesion. 
  • The ‘protective effect’ of social cohesion is felt more strongly among Londoners with the highest household incomes.

Efforts to improve social cohesion, for example an increased focus on community policing, are likely to be effective in improving overall levels of wellbeing in London. Although such initiatives are likely to have disproportionate benefits for those Londoners who already occupy more privileged societal positions. 

It is important for policymakers to strike a careful balance between improving overall levels of wellbeing, whilst not entrenching existing inequalities in wellbeing outcomes.

For more details of our findings and the full suite of policy recommendations, targeting both local and national government, see our full report.  

If you are interested in discussing our work in more detail, please contact Dr Elizabeth Simon at e.simon@qmul.ac.uk  


Related Centre resources

Community and social connection

Work 

Wellbeing inequalities

Health

Measuring wellbeing using WEMWBS

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