Lifelong learning: what are the wellbeing co-benefits?

The Government’s recently published Industrial Strategy, now out to consultation, indicated a shift towards embedding lifelong learning to help people retrain in new skills and adapt to rapid changes in technology.  What the strategy misses is how learning directly, and indirectly, affects our wellbeing.

There are 1.9 million adults enrolled in further education colleges, according to the Association of Colleges. And thousands of employees in the UK participate in work-based training and development courses each year.

When we spoke with the people around the UK about wellbeing, the most commonly used word was ‘opportunity’.  What you told us about learning, work and wellbeing was that:

  • work and learning offers achievement, satisfaction, appreciation, pride
  • work and learning can bring a sense of fulfillment, belonging, shared interest and experience
  • transition points (such as going into and out of retirement) need support.

What’s more, learning is also one of the evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing along with give, connect, take notice and be active.

And the obvious goal of the countless courses and training on offer appear to be improving they way we work, or changing our work completely.

But the evidence reveals that learning has an interesting and complex relationship with wellbeing. In the short term, the impact on wellbeing can be negative. Meeting essay deadlines or taking exams, for example, can increase stress or reduce social interactions with friends, which are factors that contribute to our subjective wellbeing.

When you take a longer view, however, additional formal qualifications or education shows a slightly positive impact on a person’s wellbeing. Again, this seems to correlate to what we might expect. For instance, we know there is a strong link between employment, especially high-quality jobs, and wellbeing. So where qualifications can lead to employment and higher quality jobs, it appears to be a good thing.

It also makes sense that where the process itself of formal and informal learning reduces isolation, there are benefits to participants’ wellbeing.  

But what, if any, are the benefits of lifelong learning to us as individuals, beyond its impact on employment progression? Does it matter what we learn about, or if we learn in-person or online? What are the criteria that make learning meaningful? And how does learning change over time? One striking finding about learning in the UK, for example, is that it is the one of the five ways to wellbeing that drops off most dramatically with age.

Evidence from observational studies (non-intervention studies that assess naturally occurring levels of learning, such as qualification or accreditation gained, or job status) supports a relationship between wellbeing and learning. Although identifying the causal mechanism has been more difficult: do happier people engage in more learning opportunities, or do learning opportunities make people happier?

In February, the Centre will publish our findings from a systematic review carried out with our team in the University of East Anglia on the wellbeing impacts of learning at work. Later in the year, we will publish the results of a systematic review of adult learning and wellbeing. This explores the processes through which this positive wellbeing occurs. 

Understanding the potential health benefits of different types of learning obviously has implications for service delivery, funding and policy making in further education and workplace learning.

The findings will address the question about the benefits of lifelong learning beyond employment-related benefits. It’s an important one. Especially if we are to evolve our perception of work-based and community learning from being focused mainly on what it does for our employment prospects, to how it contributes to our personal and community wellbeing. 

To get an alert when the work and learning findings become available, please email us at

Five ways to Wellbeing in the UK

5The Five Ways to Wellbeing are a set of evidence-based actions which promote people’s wellbeing. Whilst not claiming to be the biggest determinants of wellbeing, it’s a set of simple things individuals can do in their everyday lives. They were developed by the New Economics Foundation and based on the findings of the 2008 Government Office for Science Foresight report on Mental Capital and Wellbeing that aimed to develop a long term vision for maximising wellbeing in the UK.

They are

  1. Connect
  2. Be Active
  3. Take Notice
  4. Keep Learning
  5. Give

The 5 ways to wellbeing are integral to many activities that we care about and enjoy. Since their publication, the five ways have had an enormous reach, being used as evaluation frameworks, in school curriculums and by local authorities . They have formed the basis to specific interventions to improve wellbeing that we will be reviewing as part of our community wellbeing programme. 

In 2012, the European Social Survey was the first major survey to include questions directly on the five ways to wellbeing, allowing exploration of patterns of five ways behaviours across Europe for the first time.

fig19The Making Wellbeing Count for Policy research by Cambridge University, City University and the New Economics Foundation looked at this rich survey data and found:

  • People in the UK have low levels of participation in the five ways to wellbeing, compared to peer countries such as France and Germany particularly on Take Notice. With the exception of those aged 65 and over.
  • Having children seems to limit people’s opportunities to take notice in the UK in ways that do not apply in the rest of Europe.  
  • People of working age in the UK connect less than their peers in the rest of Europe, though this deficit also applies to those not in employment, suggesting that it cannot be explained purely in terms of working patterns.
  • Those in the UK aged 25-64 were much less likely to connect than their peers in other countries
  • Young women (15 – 24), parents, and people doing housework or childcare in the UK reported very low rates on Take Notice (whether people take notice and appreciate their surroundings). This finding was not replicated across Europe, suggesting there may be particular barriers in the UK for these population groups which may be amenable to policy.

The figures show the UK’s levels of five ways participation ‘Connect’ compared to other countries. Countries with a GDP per capita of below $30,000 are shaded in lighter blue. Given that the UK has a GDP per capita of almost $40,000 one would expect it to achieve higher participation in five ways than those countries.

Previous research has found that generally, in the UK:  

  • Males are more likely to be active, whereas females are more likely to give and connect.
  • People from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to be active, give and keep learning.
  • The older people are, the less likely they are to keep learning and be active.
  • However, for both Connect and Give, the trend follows a U curve, with people aged 16-25 and 65-74 most likely to engage in these activities.
  • People with qualifications are more likely to keep learning and give.

First quarterly UK personal wellbeing update to September 2016


Fig 1b average anxiety ratings to Sept 2016

Fig 1b average anxiety ratings to Sept 2016

Average ratings of anxiety increased slightly between the years ending September 2015 and 2016.


Wales was the only country to have higher anxiety ratings than the UK average.




Figure 1a Average life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness ratings to Sept 2016

Figure 1a Average life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness ratings to Sept 2016


Average life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness ratings were unchanged between the years ending September 2015 and 2016.






New rolling quarterly updates

Measuring personal well-being can help us understand how changes in circumstance, policies and wider events in society may affect people’s lives, perhaps more so than traditional economic measures. Up to now, the current publication of official well-being statistics by the Office for National Statistics only allowed for changes in personal well-being to be assessed once a year.  With growing demand for timely statistics ONS reduced the lag from the end of the reporting period to 4 months from 6 months. And we look forward to more improvements to the timeliness of these statistics.

In a bid to make the personal wellbeing data more usable by the public and policy makers alike, ONS are publishing for the first time today, annual UK and country estimates for the 4 personal wellbeing questions on a rolling quarterly basis. Personal well-being data will, going forward, be published 4 times a year. Today’s publication contains data from year ending March 2012 to year ending September 2016.

Housing and wellbeing: special focus

To kick off 2017 we are publishing our scoping review on housing and wellbeing. It looks at what we know and where the gaps are. It also sets out what our focus will be for our upcoming systematic review on housing later this year. We’re focusing on housing and wellbeing because that’s what emerged as a priority area for a range of stakeholders in our public dialogues.


Read the full scoping review or the four-page briefing.



What does the English Housing Survey tell us about housing and wellbeing?

This week the What Works Centre for Wellbeing shares a new scoping review on housing and wellbeing. To mark this focus on communities and the built environment, we’re sharing a blog from the English Housing Survey Team in Department for Communities and Local Government.

Earlier in 2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in collaboration with ZK Analytics and NatCen, published a report on housing and well-being. The report analyses life satisfaction and anxiety as measured by the ONS personal well-being questions. It also uses the English Housing Survey (EHS) to identify the personal characteristics and housing factors associated with wellbeing. Using a series of linear regressions, the report assesses the strength of housing factors in relation to that of personal characteristics.

Because the EHS includes both an interview with the members of the household and a physical inspection of the property, the analysis could examine the impact that housing conditions (e.g. tenure, type, dwelling condition, state of disrepair) as well as personal characteristics have on an individual’s wellbeing. This is the first time that such analysis has been conducted.

Main findings include:

  • Life satisfaction and anxiety are primarily driven by personal characteristics such as health, marital and employment status. For example someone who considered their health to be very good had a level of life satisfaction 2.7 points higher than someone who considered their health to be very bad (on a scale ranging from 0 to 10). Some housing circumstances do however have significant effects.
  • The top housing factor associated with both life satisfaction and anxiety was being in arrears with rent or mortgage payments. Being in arrears reduced an individual’s life satisfaction by 0.6 points and increased anxiety by 0.6 points (on a scale ranging from 0 to 10). These effects were similar in size to some personal factors, such as income after housing costs. This was associated with a difference of 0.6 points in life satisfaction between the lowest and highest income quintiles.
  • Life satisfaction appeared to be influenced by other housing factors, however anxiety did not.
  • For life satisfaction, the second most important property-related predictor was the type of tenure, with social renters having higher levels of life satisfaction (0.2 points higher than outright owners), if all other factors and characteristics were held constant.
  • The next most important property-related predictor of life satisfaction was the type of dwelling. Compared to living in terraced houses, living in flats or semi-detached houses decreased life satisfaction. The largest difference observed was between people living in terraced houses and high rise purpose built flats; their level of life satisfaction was, on average, 0.3 points lower.
  • The final significant property-related predictor of life satisfaction was repair costs. As the average cost of repairs per square metre increased from £0 to £41 (the mean), the level of satisfaction decreased by 0.03 points.
  • Overcrowding (as measured by the bedroom standard) and other housing factors did not appear to have a significant effect on life satisfaction.

The research raises several interesting questions, and has helped us identity a number of areas which would benefit from further exploration.

For example, we are considering adding questions to the survey that assess housing conditions by measuring respondents’ subjective assessments. Respondents could be asked to state, for instance, whether they think their household is overcrowded (as opposed to using an objective indicator such as the Bedroom Standard). In addition, other factors relating to housing and the built environment such as age of dwelling, presence of outdoor space and dwelling density could be explored. The drivers of satisfaction with accommodation and what is the relationship between satisfaction with accommodation and well-being could also be analysed.

More detail, including links to the other reports recently published by DCLG can be found hereEnglish housing survey datasets are also available for analysis. Please contact for any further queries.