This morning the Office for National Statistics published its first findings from the national wellbeing index. The prominence of this index marks a significant shift in the value we place on, and indeed the way we measure, social progress. This is an important first attempt at moving away from understanding social progress in material terms to take a broader account of the attributes that add up to life satisfaction.
In this period of economic downturn, measures that focus on ‘wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’ may appear out of sync with the national mood and may not resonate with an anxious public. With public sector cuts, changes in benefits and reduced public services, there will be many who suggest that material deprivation is perhaps a more acute concern than the nation’s happiness and wellbeing. We would assert that a better understanding of the nation’s wellbeing and resilience will be one of many aspects that will help us to weather the current financial conditions.
Nonetheless, measures of wellbeing are a way of capturing the bundle of experiences and circumstances that add up to what is generally described as life satisfaction. The use of objective and subjective data – understanding the way in which people describe their lives, as well as objective indicators, provides a more rounded view of what is social progress.
The findings from the national wellbeing index chime with our wellbeing work at the Young Foundation.
Our work with the Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Primary Care Trusts looks at how best to promote emotional wellbeing amongst children and young people. Our research found that inevitably most, if not all, young people encounter stressful or challenging situations, some of which are part of normal developmental process and some of which were more serious. One year 10 pupil said: ‘I feel pressure from numerous sources – it’s harder to get a place at uni, increased unemployment, everything is becoming harder to do.’
Our analysis of the Understanding Society Survey on the nation’s wellbeing and resilience shows that approximately 42% have low wellbeing, whilst the remaining 58% of the population have high wellbeing. What is clear from our analysis is that the economic situation is definitely having an impact on the extent to which we live satisfied lives. Responses to the question on subjective financial situation and employment status were variables strongly associated with wellbeing.
Therefore wellbeing research and measurement tools are not merely an attempt to gloss over the pertinent issues about how financially secure people feel. They are able to capture the experiences and issues that people are challenged with in a new way, providing a richer picture of modern Britain.
Our wellbeing and resilience measure (WARM) identifies a strong correlation between wellbeing and resilience. The same emotional and social attributes that are identified as resilience are also those associated with wellbeing.
However, our analysis shows that some people have high levels of wellbeing, but low resilience. That is people are seemingly faring well, but are vulnerable if crisis hits. This is in contrast to individuals who have high levels of wellbeing and high resilience.
We have found that notions of wellbeing need to be tied with a clear understanding of resilience. Resilience provides a more dynamic view, taking into account how likely we are to emerge from shock or crisis, or some of the more gradual challenges that we encounter as part of the life course. The extent to which we can rebound from these experiences is in large part determined by our responses.
Our research shows that strong social networks, be it friends or families, are associated with feeling able to think clearly, having confidence and ability to make decisions – all attributes that correlate with resilient behaviours. In addition, when asked, most young people in Buckinghamshire identified peers, family members and school teachers as support in times of stress.
What is apparent is that wellbeing and resilience matter. Whilst people with low wellbeing are at times more readily identifiable, promoting resilience can future-proof and enhance wellbeing, helping individuals to cope when life challenges occur. And whilst resilience may not put £10 in your pocket when times are hard, it can help you know how to cope and where to get help.