Trust, wellbeing and measuring inequality

helliwellAt our Annual Lecture in London on 6 March the Centre will be launching a new report looking at measuring wellbeing inequalities across Britain. Speaking at the lecture is Professor John Helliwell, a leading happiness economist and proponent of wellbeing inequalities. Here he sets out why wellbeing inequality can help us focus resources and see a more complete picture than other measures alone.

Inequality in wellbeing and its impact on our lives is an area of policy that doesn’t get much air time in the UK. Although the idea of looking beyond income alone as a measure of local and national progress has taken root, there is still a way to go until we look at social justice through a wellbeing lens. This is a missed opportunity, as it can provide a broader and more appropriate measure than than income inequality alone.

Why is inequality in wellbeing important?

Focussing on averages can hide important underlying variation within and between population groups, places or regions. Differences in wellbeing show the gap between those who feel their lives are progressing well and those who feel they are languishing. They can show differences between groups, e.g. between females and males; those in and out of work; between areas. They can also show differences in wellbeing within a certain group. For example, within a local authority what are the factors that define those who feel they are doing well compared to those who are struggling?

Why we should look at inequalities, not just averages

When we make comparisons over time, increases in wellbeing averages may be entirely due those who already have high levels of wellbeing getting happier. This leaves those at the low end of the distribution unaffected, or possibly even worse off.

We need to focus resources where they will make the biggest difference, which is where a better understanding of inequalities in wellbeing can help.

Research due to be published by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing on the 6 March will show how inequalities in our wellbeing vary across local authorities, and in which authorities there are greater wellbeing ‘penalities’, such as having lower levels of education.

What might be the likely sources of wellbeing inequality?

Previous research carried out by the New Economic Foundation (NEF) – one of the What Works Centre’s partners –  has found unemployment rates to be a strong predictor of wellbeing inequality in a country. Higher health inequalities have been associated with higher wellbeing inequalities. Trust may also be a contributing factor. Research I carried out with Haifang Huang and Shun Wang shows that living in a high-trust environment makes people more resilient to adversity. Being subject to discrimination, ill-health or unemployment, although always damaging to subjective wellbeing, is much less damaging to those living in trustworthy environments.

These results suggest a fresh set of links between trust and inequality. Individuals who are subject to discrimination, ill-health or unemployment are typically concentrated towards the lower end of any national distribution of happiness. Thus the resilience-increasing feature of social trust reduces well-being inequality by channeling the largest benefits to those at the low end of the well-being distribution.

The nub of the challenge for policy-makers is: what next? What are the most important drivers and consequences of wellbeing inequalities? How can these measurements and indicators and the emerging data on wellbeing inequalities translate into meaningful actions? And where are the evidence gaps that could bring forward our understanding?

I’m looking forward to tackling the ‘what next’ with those in the UK who are at the forefront of researching, implementing and measuring wellbeing inequalities at the Centre’s Annual Lecture on 6 March.

Retirement and wellbeing: what works?

retirement-thumbFollowing our international systematic review, and in light of the government’s paper, Fuller Working Lives, published earlier this month, we look at what it means for people’s wellbeing to retire.



Download the retirement and wellbeing briefing.


If you think retirement is an automatic ticket to a happier life, our new briefing might give you pause for thought.

The systematic review looked at the global evidence base of mental health and wellbeing in the UK and similar countries.

The way we retire matters for our mental health and wellbeing. And it affects us differently depending on who we are, what type of job we are leaving, and whether we have a choice in our retirement plan.

A key finding for employers is that ‘bridging jobs’ could make retirement happier. Suggesting companies should consider supporting older workers to ‘wind-down’ into retirement with the choice of bridging jobs or reduced working hours.

But the most important factor is control over retirement timing. Being forced to retire due to restructuring or ill health is negative for mental health and wellbeing. Those who take up bridging jobs because of financial strain showed lower wellbeing.

Having a support network was also an important factor. One fascinating study in the review looked at the retirement transition and adjustment process. It found certain patterns in terms of psychological wellbeing (PWB), these were:

  1. Maintaining pattern: individuals cope with important changes in their lives by maintaining their familiar patterns of thought, behaviour, and relationships. This is the majority pattern (almost 70%). This group was composed of those who had a bridge job, had planned more actively for their retirement, were married and had a spouse who was present and not working.
  2. Recovery pattern: for those who were not satisfied with their career jobs, retirement can act as a way out from unpleasant work roles. For these kind of retirees, retirement is shown to be associated with an improved psychological wellbeing. This is a small minority pattern (under 5%). This group were was composed of those who retired from physically demanding, stressful, less satisfying jobs.
  3. Adjusting pattern: while initial retirement process resulted in worsening PWB, over time people adjust and report even better PWB compared to baseline. This is a significant minority pattern (over 20%). This group consisted of, those who had worsening health during retirement transition, had an early retirement and had unhappy marriage.

Since the government is already encouraging workers to prolong their working life, our evidence suggests that this might be accomplished by measures to support older workers with health problems who wish to stay longer in the labour market.

Measures to promote workers’ control over their retirement timing might include more support for pension saving (particularly for low earners), alongside better information
about retirement planning. Other initiatives within organisations might include late career reviews, which encourage planning for retirement.

Understanding happiness: ways to measure wellbeing

As well as the national headline measures of personal wellbeing, new methods of understanding ‘how we are doing’ are being used and studied. Here is a spotlight on the some recent findings.  We are exploring more of these methods in our measuring wellbeing series.

Measuring happiness from the words we use

Happiness levels of citizens of the UK 1771-2009

A recent study by The Centre for Competitive Advantage at Warwick University and the think tank the Social Market Foundation looked used the emotion words in over eight million books to map happiness over 200 years in six countries. They found that tracking the words used gave very similar findings to more traditional measures of wellbeing.  

As you might expect, war, civil conflict and economic collapse is very bad for our wellbeing and increase life expectancy and decreased child mortality increases happiness. They concluded we were happiest in 1957. This might come as a surprise to many people of colour, the LGBT community and other minorities who lived during the 50s; obviously, what is published in books is not the whole story.

We can see the impact on our happiness of more recent national events from the Office for National Statistics data here in the UK.  Grounds for an autumn bank holiday perhaps?


Taking the pulse of the public mood online

Other teams are now looking at how the words we use online tell us about population level happiness and predictors.

#HappySheffield shows the last 50 tweets analysed from Sheffield and the lastest emotion in the city.  You can compare your own twitter activity.


Dow Jones Index of Happiness who find that, unlike the age findings below, we are most unhappy as teenagers 13-14 years, with happiness rising to 45-60 and then down again for 75-84 years.


The World Wellbeing Project Has a range of studies on the language we use and our wellbeing including a study that was able to predict county level incidence of atherosclerotic heart disease from the use of words reflecting negative social relationships, disengagement, and negative emotions—especially anger—emerged as risk factors; positive emotions and psychological engagement emerged as protective factors.

Other happiness nuggets

The report has a lot of nuggets of recent wellbeing research findings

  • Happier workers are 12% more productive and that traumatic life events e.g. death or serious illness of close family member, unsurprisingly, reduces happiness but also reduces productivity.
  • Wellbeing research can explain voting behaviour beyond traditional financial indicators with drops in life satisfaction leading 10-12% drop in support for the governing party.
  • Happiest places have fewer unhappy people rather than having extraordinarily happy people but happiest places tend to have higher suicide rates.
  • Genetics explains up to ⅓ of our wellbeing with some people being more sensitive to their environment and the impact of both positive and negative life events.  
  • Happiness is contagious  
  • Happiness is U-shaped aka the midlife crisis is real


  • Eat your SEVEN a day – Eating fruit and veg increases mental wellbeing even more, and more quickly, than it improves physical wellbeing.


Do this

We can target happiness gains when decision making.  Policy makers already use wellbeing data to inform their case to HM Treasury for societal impact and the refreshed Green Book will give greater prominence to wellbeing metrics. Understanding of what makes us happy can help direct limited resources towards most effective ways to improve happiness.  

The report concludes with the policy recommendations listed below.

  • Vibrant economy and economic stability are important for wellbeing not just income growth. Stable employment and avoiding runaway inflation as the aim avoids the very negative impacts on wellbeing of unemployment beyond loss of income and allows spending on other things that enhance wellbeing.
  • Mental health services that are affordable, widely available, easily accessible and less stigmatised.
  • Better health including efforts to increase longevity, reduce child mortality and cleaner air including focus on prevention.
  • Shorter, and I would argue, better quality commutes.
  • Look beyond individual impact by fostering strong social networks to combat loneliness and because happiness is contagious.
  • Research which feelings matter most.