Do scenic spots benefit our health?

Does living in a beauty spot make us healthier? And what do we consider a scenic view? These were the questions faced by researchers at the Turing Institute when they began their study using large-scale data capture to look at the role our environment plays in our health. Here, Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe of Warwick University shares some tantalising initial findings from the innovative research carried out at the Turing Institute, where she is spending an enrichment year.

For centuries, philosophers, policy-makers and urban planners have debated whether living in more picturesque surroundings can improve our wellbeing. However, finding evidence to inform this debate has proven to be tricky, as gathering large-scale survey data on people’s perceptions of their surroundings is a highly time-consuming and costly endeavour. Luckily, today we have a new resource: all the data generated through our increasing interactions with the internet has allowed us to measure human experience on an unprecedented scale.

We were thrilled to discover the online game Scenic-Or-Not, where Internet users rate the “scenicness” of photos that cover nearly 95% of the 1 km grid squares of Great Britain. Over 1.5 million ratings of more than 212,000 pictures of Britain have been collected so far. In our first study exploring the connection between scenic places and human wellbeing, we decided to combine these ratings with data from the 2011 Census for England and Wales, where people report their health status. We wanted to find out if people feel healthier in more scenic environments.

However, we also had to account for a wide range of confounding factors that might be related to people’s reports about their health. For example, it could be that richer people are living in more scenic areas, and thus reporting better health. Or, scenic places might be only those that are in rural areas. After building a variety of such factors into our analysis, including neighbourhood income and access to services, we still found that people feel healthier when they live in more scenic locations, and this holds across urban, suburban and rural areas. 

Crucially, we also found that scenic areas were not simply green areas. While our analysis confirmed that people do report better health in areas with more green land cover, we found that reports of health can be better explained when considering ratings of scenicness, rather than purely by measurements of green space.

So, you might ask, what are these beautiful places actually composed of? We decided to get a deeper understanding of the all the images being rated on Scenic-Or-Not by using an AI algorithm, specifically MIT Places, to analyse over 200,000 Scenic-or-Not images to uncover what attributes, such as “trees”, “mountain”, “hospital” and “highway”, corresponded to high and low scenic ratings.

We discovered that features such as “Valley”, “Coast”, “Mountain” and “Trees” were associated with higher scenicness. However, some man-made elements also tended to improve scores, including historical architecture such as “Church”, “Castle”, “Tower” and “Cottage”, as well as bridge-like structures such as “Viaduct” and “Aqueduct”. Interestingly, large areas of greenspace such as “Grass” and “Athletic Field” led to lower ratings of scenicness, rather than boosting scores. You can read that research here.

It appears that the old adage ‘natural is beautiful’ seems to be incomplete: flat and uninteresting green spaces are not necessarily beautiful, while characterful buildings and stunning architectural features can improve the beauty of a scene.

In order to ensure the wellbeing of local residents, urban planners and policy makers might find it valuable to consider the aesthetics of the environment when embarking on new projects. Our findings imply that simply introducing greenery, without considering the beauty of the resulting environment, might not be enough.

In the next phase of this research we are exploring whether people are also happier in more beautiful environment, using data from the innovative iPhone app Mappiness. Follow us on Twitter at @thedatascilab or @thoughtsymmetry for further developments on this research.

 

What wellbeing data do local authorities need to make better decisions?

la-indicator-rep

 

Download Understanding local needs for wellbeing data (July 2017)

Download only the appendices (with indicator sets and guidance)

 

 

  • Local Wellbeing Indicators use existing data and the best research to show true picture of local residents’ lives and community wellbeing.
  • Indicators look at personal relationships, economics, education, childhood, equality, health, place and social relationships- currently no local authority uses all of this data in one place to meet local needs.

For the first time, local authorities can use data on things like job quality, anxiety levels, social isolation, green space and how physically active people are to get better insights into what really matters to their communities.

Currently, local authorities have to rely solely on traditional metrics, such as unemployment and material deprivation, to build an idea of where people are struggling and thriving. The new indicators now offer, in addition to these, a real-world set of measures for data that follows people’s quality of life from cradle to grave. This gives a more sophisticated picture of where communities may be at risk of health, financial and social problems.

Their origins and next steps

To develop the indicators, What Works Centre for Wellbeing partnered with Happy City and consulted with individuals in 26 different organisations, including nine city councils, seven county or district councils, the three devolved governments (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), and nine other organisations including the Local Government Association, Defra, The Health Foundation and the New Economics Foundation.

We are now working with Happy City to visualise the indicator data for different regions of the UK. We are also using pilots of the indicators in some representative local authority and public health settings to see if they are flexible enough to be useful, whatever the profile of an area, for example urban versus rural.

Will they work for you?

To refine and develop the indicators, we encourage you to try out the set and share
your learning with us, so we can continue to refine and develop it for use by practitioners who are not data specialists. Our aim is to continually improve them to provide an accessible snapshot of local wellbeing, and make sure the indicators fit with other established initiatives and data sets, such as JSNAs, quality of life surveys and so on.

If you are planning to test the indicators, or have any questions, please get in touch and let us know: info@whatworkswellbeing.org.

Call for evidence: Community infrastructure (places and spaces) impact on social relations & community wellbeing evaluations

What’s happening?

We are carrying out a systematic review to find out whether interventions designed to improve community places and spaces are effective in improving social relationships and community wellbeing. We are particularly interested in any effects (positive or negative) on inequalities, and any differences in effects across different settings and population groups.

The review team will be doing a careful search for published material, but would also like to include ‘grey’ literature – such as evaluations that have yet to be published, or reports and evaluations produced by charities, government departments, or community groups.

How can you get involved?

If you are aware of an evaluation of an intervention designed to improve community places and spaces, with the aim of improving social relations or wellbeing, you can submit it to our systematic review and help us build an evidence base for community infrastructure interventions.

We are particularly seeking evidence that meets the following criteria:

  1. Evaluation studies with assessments of social relations or wellbeing taken before and after the intervention – this is to allow us to determine whether the intervention was associated with any changes in wellbeing.
  2. Evidence that includes comparison groups that were not exposed to the intervention is particularly welcome.
  3. Evaluations of interventions designed for populations at risk of inequalities
  4. Qualitative (e.g. interviews) and quantitative (i.e. figures-based) evidence is welcome.

All examples must be written in English and include an author and date. We can only include evidence which can be made publicly available. If the work was done outside the UK, it would be helpful if you could tell us something about how relevant you think the findings are likely to be to the UK setting.

Please send your submissions electronically to us at evidence@whatworkswellbeing.org with the subject line ‘Evidence: Wellbeing and Community Infrastructure”

Submission deadline: 9 August 2017.

The protocol is on PROSPERO

What can we learn about wellbeing and social capital from South Australia?

We partnered with Wellbeing and Resilience Centre  at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide in the state of South Australia to look at their population level wellbeing data. It includes the same personal wellbeing questions as the UK data.

The research, published last month, is based on the South Australian Monitoring and Surveillance System, a monthly chronic disease and risk factor surveillance system of randomly selected people. It’s a very large survey that is representative of the population and looks at a large range of possible related factors. It shows only links – correlations – not causation, but is still useful as an indicator of where policy and community action could focus.

We found similar patterns to the UK, with higher wellbeing more likely for:

  • women
  • those living in rural areas
  • married
  • those able to save.

Lower levels of wellbeing were found in:

  • younger respondents
  • those living in the metropolitan area
  • the never married
  • those unable to save.

Control over decisions that affect our lives

The interesting thing about this dataset is that it also allows us to look at social capital. This was measured by how:

  • safe people feel
  • much people trust each other in their neighbourhood
  • how much control they have over decisions that affect their lives.  

We found that worse measures of social capital indicated lower levels of wellbeing, even when controlling for age and gender. The strongest relationship between social capital and wellbeing was when it came to how much people felt they had control over decisions that affect life. Those who do not have control were over 10 times more likely to have poor wellbeing.

The research points out that social capital, trust and relationships within a community, is at its strongest when disasters, problems or change affect a community. Investment in strengthening social capital along with resilience infrastructure- things like flood defences – in times of non-emergency could improve community resilience.

Health conditions and associated risk factors

The data also looks at a wide range of health indicators at the same time as wellbeing and social capital. Somewhat surprising in the analysis was the lack of meaningful associations between the chronic diseases and wellbeing, except for asthma. Previous findings have possible explanation: that two people can have the same health condition yet have very different levels of wellbeing, because it is ‘self-perceived health’, and especially experience of pain, that is the bigger contributor to overall wellbeing.  

The study did find that all risk factors for chronic diseases – alcohol harm, physical activity and fruit & veg consumption – were related to a person’s wellbeing. Only Body Mass Index (BMI) had no bearing on it.

A state of wellbeing in South Australia: the PERMA PLUS public health model

The current government of South Australia aims to become the first government in the world to systematically measure and build wellbeing across different cohorts and lifespans of the society to reduce the number of people experiencing catastrophic mental illness and to improve the resilience of the population. They aim to ‘foster factors that allow individuals, communities and societies to flourish.’

They use an evidence based model called PERMA Plus as the basis for the projects they do to improve wellbeing and resilience.  

Positive emotion

Engagement

Relationships

Meaning

Achievement

Plus

  • Sleep
  • Nutrition (5 veg 2 fruits a day)
  • Physical activity  
  • Optimism

Sport, dance and young people’s wellbeing: what works?

Today we publish new international evidence on the impact sport, dance and physical activity have on the wellbeing of 15-24 year olds.

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Download the sport, dance and wellbeing briefing
Download the full evidence review

Read the case studies from Ireland, Scotland and England.

 

 

Key findings:

  • Yoga, and the Tai-chi like movements of Baduanjin-qigong, provided strong evidence of their effectiveness at reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger, while improving attention spans and how the young people reported their overall wellbeing.
  • Empowering young girls through peer-supported exercise has a positive effect on their self-belief.
  • Aerobic and hip-hop dance can lead to greater increases in happiness compared to other activities like ice-skating or body conditioning.
  • Taking part in ‘exer-gaming’ programmes, like Wii Fit, in groups can help encourage overweight young people to participate in physical activity and make friends.

The research was carried out by our culture and sport research team in Brunel University London, The London School of Economics and the Universities of Winchester and Brighton.

What works to boost social relations?

As part of our Community Wellbeing Evidence Programme we are exploring the evidence on how the way organisations design community infrastructure can support, or hinder, social relations. We are publishing our scoping review today, and you can download it here.

The Jo Cox Foundation’s Great Get Together took place last week. It was a national street party, a chance to meet your neighbours and to make a statement:  there is more that unites us than divides us. With the launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission earlier this year, there’s a welcome focus on the social relations that form the foundation of our society.

When we talk about social relations, we mean the exchanges between us and the physical and social environment around us. There is good evidence that the strength of our social relations is an important determinant of individual health and wellbeing. And it’s also a central component of community wellbeing.

Before starting our programme of work, our Centre talked to different people and organisations around the country about what community wellbeing meant to them.

People continually told us that the relationships within their community, and the spaces they lived, relaxed and worked in, mattered a great deal to them. Improving social relations for community wellbeing means promoting those conditions in society that bring people together. It enables us to participate in community life and allows us to feel part of a network of shared meanings. That’s why social relations are an important component of our Theory of Change.

So, what do we know about how to boost social relations? This was the question we tackled in our new scoping review.

What did we find?

We searched widely and found 34 existing reviews that examined community-based interventions or changes in policy, organisation or environment that were designed to boost social relations within a community, and measured community-level outcomes. A number of recommendations were made about what works, including:

  • Create good neighbourhood design and maintenance of physical spaces such as good meeting places, public parks, safe and pleasant public spaces, public seating, accessible and walkable spaces, and local shops.
  • Support mixed populations – in terms of income, ethnicity and so on – in new neighbourhood developments.
  • Increase the number of local events such as car boot sales, markets, and street parties.
  • Create ways for local people to share information such as notice boards or email groups.
  • Provide greater opportunities for residents to influence decisions affecting their neighbourhoods and encouraging engagement

We also found evidence suggesting that it’s not easy to improve neighbourliness through large-scale policies. Instead, it is better to encourage local understanding and action.

What next?

Based on this scoping review we are now carrying out a systematic review of interventions to boost social relations through improvements in community infrastructure (places and spaces).

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified “neighbouring and spaces for interaction” as a research priority, and the Legatum report on wellbeing and policy highlights evidence of links between the physical environment and social relationships, and refers to a ‘magic formula‘ of having easy opportunities for social interaction but retaining the ability to choose when, who, and where we meet.

‘Bumping spaces’ – places designed for people to meet up in informal settings – were identified as a priority theme in our collaborative development phase. Despite the recognised importance of the topic, we did not find any existing systematic reviews of how community places or spaces affect social relations. Our task is to fill that gap.

We’ll be asking for your help

While we’ll be searching books and academic publications, we know that lots of evidence is not written up formally. Instead, it sits with community organisations who have evaluated their own interventions, but perhaps haven’t published them publicly. Please look out for our call for evidence, when we’ll be asking for your help to circulate to your networks to uncover the crucial clues about what works best to boost social relations.

You can sign up to receive an alert when the call goes live by emailing info@whatworkswellbeing.org.

Election 2017: can wellbeing data help unpack what matters?

Uncertainty appears to be the new normal when it comes to politics. The traditional lenses we use to examine public attitudes and behaviour, like income and GDP or healthy life expectancy, are still part of the mix. But it is wellbeing concepts that give us a really useful vocabulary to talk about the incredible changes we’re seeing in attitudes at a local and national level.

The most important early observations from a wellbeing perspective are:

1. Governance, specifically trust in the delivery of public services, matters. This is something that’s relevant all the time, not just at elections. Governance is often overlooked when it comes to it’s effect on our wellbeing, compared to other things like health, personal finance or relationships. However, it’s now coming to the forefront as we try to better understand what voting behaviour is telling us about people’s lived experiences.

Using the World Bank indicators, analysis shows that what ranks highest in importance for people are ‘effectiveness of government services and efficiency of government and policy delivery’. This is particularly important at lower GDP levels, but still holds true in richer countries.

The European Social Survey suggests that once a country reaches a good level of GDP, other governance factors become important, particularly ‘voice and accountability’, ‘political stability and absence of violence and terrorism’.

The evidence shows that when people are satisfied with the way they are governed, wellbeing is higher and more equal. Political stability bucks this trend, presumably because the longer a government remains in power, the more people feel that their interests and opinions are not being taken into account.

In the UK we have seen a decline in views of  government effectiveness since 2004. There have also been sharp changes in voice, accountability and political stability between 2002 and 2006.

fig5The last factor cited in the survey – ‘absence of violence and terrorism’ – has taken on new relevance following the three terrorist attacks that happened in Manchester and London during the election campaign. Hopefully more analysis will be carried out to fully understand its exact impact, but it certainly created an unprecedented context in which people cast their votes.

2. Being seen and heard matters. The European Social Survey suggests that two conditions affect our perceived satisfaction with society: unemployment levels and ‘perceived quality of society and societal wellbeing’, which includes things like quality of public services and feeling listened to.

We’ve seen high employment in the UK, and arguably this has cushioned the UK from the wellbeing impacts of the financial crisis. But  many clearly “feel more acutely that their interests and opinion are not being taken into account.” We can see that the financial crisis recovery didn’t reach everyone.

Additionally, the strength of our social fabric gives countries resilience and there are additional wellbeing benefits when a country’s strong social relations can help them weather crises. An interesting example is Iceland.

3. Wellbeing, and wellbeing inequality, can tell us more of the real story than income and political voting records alone when it comes to the mood of the country, or any given area. It was the an important indicator, for example, of how different regions voted in the EU Referendum.

It would be interesting to see more analysis at a constituency level before drawing too many specific conclusions. However, it’s an exciting time to be in the midst of a new way of measuring and understanding what really matters to people – which is all wellbeing really is about.

We already know, from research carried out by our evidence team at the London School of Economics, that when average wellbeing drops, an incumbent government is more likely to be booted out. When it rises, this has little effect on voting patterns. We can see that average national wellbeing rose between 2011 and 2015, and then levelled off in 2016, and we’re left with tantalising questions about its relationship to our current hung parliament.The election raises important issues for our Centre. The changing world of work, how people view their public services, social trust are just some of the elements that are shifting the balance of politics as usual. We need to keep working to understand what it means to be human and what matters to us most.

We must focus our collective efforts on creating the conditions to improve our wellbeing. This means:  

  • policy that values what matters to people including dignity, control, trust and place
  • a focus on societal advancement with human beings at the centre and the purpose of the wellbeing of future generations.  

These problems can’t be solved by government, business or charities alone. New types of collaboration are needed. This is what we aim to achieve as a collaborating centre at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. And we’re looking forward to sharing new evidence over the coming months that will help policymakers and practitioners make better decisions to improve people’s lives.