Wednesday, 22 November 2017

How Happy are EU?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently released its latest figures on personal wellbeing in the UK*. We now have five years of continuous data since this national “happiness survey” was launched in 2012. It’s also the first survey to be based on a full year of data since last year’s EU referendum result. Hence the terrible pun in the title above – sorry!

The survey, of around 158,000 people across the UK, asks four questions on personal wellbeing:
·         Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
·         Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
·         Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
·         Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

Responses to the first three questions show a further small increase that continues the gradual trend of improvement since 2012. Only the fourth question, on anxiety, shows a marginal worsening over the past two years. (See below – note that these graphs do not start at zero.)


ONS commentary offers some insight into these trends. People’s wellbeing is affected by socio-economic factors such as employment and income, but also by other issues such as health and personal relationships. More in-depth analysis is also produced by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing (

The ONS report also mentions Brexit, and it’s tempting to interpret trends in this context. Certainly, ONS data provides no evidence that the Brexit vote has made us less happy as a nation. But the data doesn’t prove the contrary either. Firstly, the exit itself hasn’t happened yet; secondly, even if it had, the survey alone doesn’t prove cause and effect because of the many other factors in play. So the jury is out on this one – and I believe is likely to remain so for many years to come!

But for me there is a more fundamental question. Why does so much of the continuing argument around Brexit focus on “the economy”? Surely personal wellbeing – how satisfied we are with our lives – is what really matters.

Sure, money has an influence on happiness, but it’s not the only thing. For most people, it’s not even the most important thing. And indicators of “the economy” generally measure regional or national wealth, not how fairly that wealth is distributed or how it affects individuals. I believe that continued work to understand trends in wellbeing, and how we can influence them, is a far better use of time and brain-power than arguing about Brexit.


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