The ONS has pioneered the measurement of national wellbeing in the UK, in addition to traditional measures of prosperity. This enables policy makers to make better, more well-rounded decisions. As the work matures, its scope is being expanded to better reflect the wellbeing of the whole population. David Tabor, research officer in Quality of Life at the Office for National Statistics, explains.

Now, the ONS is aiming to dig a little deeper than headline averages to answer questions such as: why is personal wellbeing improving? What differences are there between population groups? Are we creating the right conditions for people to thrive? What characteristics and circumstances are associated with feeling lonely?

Beyond English:  translating personal wellbeing questions

Our personal wellbeing questions (life satisfaction, worthwhile, happiness, and anxiety) have been extensively tested in English, but have never been tested in translation among groups that speak little English. As part of a wider interest in ensuring the inclusion of all members of our society, we want to understand the best method for translation and test any implications this might have for cultural and linguistic interpretations of the questions and the findings.

As a first step, we carried out  a pilot research programme to translate and cognitively test of the personal wellbeing questions in Urdu and Sylheti. These particular languages were selected for the pilot work because they were identified as languages that are frequently spoken by monolingual speakers in the UK, according to a 2011 Census detailed analysis. Urdu and Sylheti (as part of the dialects that make up Bengali) are the main languages spoken by 0.5% and 0.4% of the population, respectively. Monolingual speakers of these languages in the UK have been identified as being at risk of lower general health, and potentially also lower wellbeing. Therefore, it’s important that we measure wellbeing in this population group.

The project has provided initial insight into the linguistic and cultural issues that affect how people may rate their wellbeing as well as a method for approaching similar work in future. The final report was published earlier in April and provides further detail on the topics discussed above. The written and audio translations are also available for wider use via NatCen.The pilot project found that there are many cultural and linguistic issues that need to be taken into account when translating the personal wellbeing questions into Urdu and Sylheti. Linguistic considerations included:

  • the fact that Sylheti is a spoken language with no official written form
  • not all Urdu speakers are comfortable using the formal version of the language
  • written versions of the questions in both languages may be hard to use and there are a multitude of dialects for both languages, which are more or less mutually understandable.

Apart from cultural and religious considerations that must be taken into account, there are also issues relating to literacy, numeracy and education levels, gender of interviewer and respondent, and lack of familiarity with survey questions and response scales. For these reasons, it was important to allow enough time at each stage of the project for discussion, testing and refinement to arrive at the best possible outcome.

The final written and audio translations of the personal wellbeing questions in Urdu and Sylheti can be used in interviewing monolingual speakers of these languages in the UK as well as with those who have some proficiency in English, but would prefer to answer the questions in their native languages.

Measuring wellbeing inequalities

Alongside our standard measures of personal wellbeing, we are also exploring possible measures of well-being inequality, with a hope to include these in our future reporting. A working paper will be released later this year exploring the potential policy priorities for reducing well-being inequalities and consider which measures best capture the distribution of well-being across the population. The strengths and weaknesses of different measures of wellbeing inequalities will be presented in this report.

Loneliness and lowest wellbeing

Earlier this month we also published work on social characteristics and circumstances associated with loneliness and groups more likely to be lonely. The Prime Minister recently announced the development of a strategy to alleviate loneliness in response to the report of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, published in December 2017. Our analysis will allow users and policymakers the chance to better understand the most at-risk groups, including patterns of multiple risks.

Similar work has also been carried out exploring the characteristics of individuals who report the lowest subjective well-being in the UK. The identification of these groups will help policymakers target interventions towards those struggling most in society. The details of this work will be published in May.

If you are interested in any of the topics discussed above, please get in touch via QualityOfLife@onsi.gsi.gov.uk