Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Are We Getting Happier?

Yes, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  Their 2012/13 survey of Personal Well-being in the UK, reported last week, showed a 1.1% increase in people reporting good overall satisfaction with their lives, and a similar fall in those reporting high levels of anxiety. The survey, of more than 165,000 people, also breaks down this overall figure by population characteristics such as ethnicity, health, marital status and economic activity (although not religion, interestingly).

ONS doesn’t comment on government policies, but does comment on some basic causes. The three biggest factors affecting life satisfaction are health, relationship status and employment. On the last of these, slowly falling unemployment and (perhaps more significant) more job vacancies at least offer some hope. Oddly, ONS also suggests that one-off 2012 events such as the Queen’s jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics may also have contributed, although the evidence here is unclear.

Often the devil is in the detail however, so I looked for any groups which do not follow this general trend. Surprisingly, even the long-term sick, disabled and unemployed, where you might expect welfare reform and other cuts to have an impact, show positive trends – although only slight, and a few groups have higher anxiety. The only area in which 2012/13 life satisfaction appears lower than the year before is based on ethnicity. Even here most groups are positive, but a few, particularly Arab and ‘other Asian’ show decreased life satisfaction.

Why should this be? Concern over anti-Muslim sentiment? Increased pressure on refugees and asylum seekers perhaps? The survey, like any form of evaluation, means little unless the information is understood and acted on. Statements about there being ‘more to life than GDP’ are just political rhetoric unless something is seen to happen as a result of the survey.

So will the government acknowledge and respond to these aspects of the survey results? Or will they just sit back, hope the overall improvement continues next year, and make excuses if it doesn’t? The answer will show how committed they really are to life satisfaction and personal well-being in this country.