By Peter Hoskin
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Are you happy? What makes you happy? Do you feel that your life is worthwhile? I ask not out of fluffy concern, I'm afraid, but because these are the sorts of questions that underpin the datasets released by the Office for National Statistics this morning. Yes, some years after David Cameron first talked about focusing on National Well-being (or General Well-being, as he called it at the time) as well as GDP, we finally have some numbers to process. Although, a health warning first: this is all still a work-in-progress. The ONS has published a glut of ‘experimental’ figures relating to one aspect of National Well-being — subjective well-being, aka "how we feel" — as well as a couple of more laid-back documents investigating how health and home contribute to our happiness. They're still working towards a more holistic measure.
So what do these experimental figures show? The headline finding is surely that we’re a fairly contended bunch. For instance, 76 per cent of people over 16 rate their ‘life satisfaction’ at 7-out-of-10 or higher. That increases to 80 per cent on the question of whether ‘the things you do in your life are worthwhile’. And then … oh, hold on a minute, I know what some of you are thinking. Aren't these happiness measures rather trivial, particularly at a time when the hard economic statistics — GDP growth, inflation, unemployment rates — seem to better capture what many people are going through? Why should we even care?
There is certainly a debate to be had about the worth of happiness measures, but it’s when you break today’s numbers down to their constituent parts that their significance becomes clear. I won’t regurgitate all of the ONS figures here, but here’s a brief selection copied from the various documents:
- Forty five per cent of unemployed people rated their ‘life satisfaction’ as below 7 (indicating lower life satisfaction). This is over twice the proportion reported by employed people (20.0 per cent).
- Having a partner appears to be related with improved subjective well-being. On average, higher proportions of adults who were married, in a civil partnership or cohabitating reported high ratings of 9 or 10 out of 10 for the ‘life satisfaction’, ‘worthwhile’ and ‘happy yesterday’ questions than people who were single, widowed or divorced.
- An individual’s housing tenure and the level of their overall satisfaction with life are linked. According to the 2011/12 Subjective Well-being Annual Population Survey dataset, a higher proportion of those who owned their property, either outright or with a mortgage, reported a medium/high level of life satisfaction (7 to 10 out of 10) than those with other tenures in the UK in 2011/12. Conversely, nearly a third (32 per cent) of those who rented reported a low satisfaction with life (0 to 6 out of 10) compared with just under a fifth (19 per cent) of those who owned their accommodation outright and a fifth (20 per cent) of those who owned their accommodation with a mortgage.
- The lowest average rating for the ‘life satisfaction’ rating (7.1 out of 10) was found for the 45 to 49 and 50 to 54 age groups. Additionally, Figure 2.3 shows that the 45 to 49, 50 to 54 and 55 to 56 age groups all had between 9.1 and 9.3 per cent of people reporting a very low life satisfaction rating of between 0 to 4 out of 10.
Of course, we don’t need the wonks to tell us that a middle-aged person without a job, a stable relationship or their own home might not be sunshine personified. But then consider the fact that — as the ONS makes clear — these numbers could be used by the government to help formulate policy. Future governments might sift through them to identify which groups could do with a happiness boost (in the above case, middle-aged people) and what could be done to help them (in the above case, interesting from a conservative perspective: employment, family and ownership). And if that becomes normal practice for advancing and justifying policies, then the contours of British political debate could start looking very different indeed.