Dan Corry, Chief Executive of NPC and What Works Wellbeing board member, reports from the Wellbeing over the Life Course one day conference run by our Cross Cutting Team led by Lord Layard at London School of Economics (LSE).
The Wellbeing juggernaut is well and truly ploughing on in the academic world as evidenced by a full day conference held recently at the LSE. Here, some of the best academics around presented draft chapters of a book due to come out soon, looking at wellbeing in many different ways. These included Richard Layard, Andrew Clark and Andrew Steptoe. Equally powerful academics, like Alan Manning, Jane Waldfogel and Tim Besley, discussed them and the audience – of which I and several of my What Works Centre for Wellbeing colleagues were part – chipped in.
The book, and the day, looked at wellbeing issues as they affect young people and are influenced by the early years; at those of working age; and at the wellbeing of older people too. They used a number of different data sets and were all focused around the causes and correlates with subjective wellbeing, a controversial issue in its own right but one that conference organiser Richard Layard still thinks is the best measure for us to use however imperfect it inevitably is.
There was a lot to take in, but here are some of the particular things that struck me. None are ground breaking, but all are of interest.
- This area is growing fast. The fact that questions about wellbeing (along the lines of the four ONS questions) are being added to many surveys makes this analysis much more possible. We are seeing economists and other disciplines getting into the area using cross section and panel data.
- Expectations matter. Subjective wellbeing is all about how you feel and so is bound to include how you feel you are faring relative to how you expected or want to feel. One finding for instance (from a recent DCLG survey) that shows that wellbeing is not diminished by living in a damp, over-occupied property seems to suggest that people living in such conditions are comparing themselves to those who have nothing, not those in fancy houses. The media also becomes important in this space, helping set norms – often very unrepresentative and misleading ones.
- Peer effects matter too. One of the bits of research suggested that while being unemployed is detrimental for wellbeing (indeed one of the worst things that can happen to you), being in an area where there are a lot of other people unemployed means it is less bad. On the other hand it makes those in employment feel a bit worse. One needs to be careful on policy prescriptions therefore – the fact that one could improve short term wellbeing by making all the unemployed live in the same area, would do nothing for longer term wellbeing.
- Some impacts of bad things are temporary – some go on and on. Research presented suggested that while a separation in a relationship is pretty bad for wellbeing, after a few years wellbeing moves back to the level it was before. The same happens with losing a spouse. Even the boost from deciding to have a child and becoming a parent appears not to last! But other things do have a lasting impact – being in a relationship or partnership is a good example.
- People adapt – sometimes with strange affects. Women used to do poorly paid, low status work. Many now have better jobs. But the wellbeing associated with the job appears to be no better – or sometimes worse. If we had been making decisions based on wellbeing we might have said this change is of no value and should be resisted – which feels completely wrong.
- There are externalities at play with profound implications for policy making based on wellbeing. The analysis suggests for instance that my income going up is good for my wellbeing, but may make you feel worse. Same if I get a job. So maximising society wellbeing is not at all the same as pushing up individual wellbeing.
- The wellbeing lens is putting a new emphasis on some issues – like mental health and early action, something emphasised by former Cabinet Secretary and wellbeing enthusiast Gus O’Donnell. There is a danger that we get into a tautology in some of this – naturally those who are depressed or have anxiety related conditions are likely to say they have low wellbeing; we surely did not need wellbeing data to tell us this! But nevertheless the focus this agenda has given to mental health has been very valuable and the same sort of thing applies to relationships, something I have written about elsewhere .
- A focus on the most unhappy is sometimes useful. Looking at the bottom 10% in terms of wellbeing for instance really helps us see who we should perhaps be looking to help most. Looking at the average can obscure the things we really want to get at and we want to also explore changes in wellbeing inequality alongside changes in average wellbeing.
- How you are considered matters to your wellbeing. Alan Manning alluded to the Brexit vote and the fact that while a job in a service industry might be as well paid as a job in the mines it is unlikely to carry the same sense of worth or status.
- Psycho-social factors in childhood matter more to wellbeing than academic ones. This raises issues about schools policy and parental behaviour, as well as putting a big focus on the mother’s mental health. We also need to get some data on genetics into the analysis to see how much, if any, this is driving.
- There are inevitably lots of interactions that will bedevil the search for key drivers of wellbeing. For instance separation is associated with lower wellbeing, but at least some of this is due to income dropping not separation per se.
- We need to dig harder on gender. The research presented to us rarely distinguished between men and women. That seemed to most a big gap – as there is no real reason to think the drivers of wellbeing will always be the same across genders.
- The old are not less happy than the young. As Andrew Steptoe noted, given all the things that happen to you health and relationship-wise as you get older, this is perhaps surprising. In addition physical health seemed to be less important for older people than emotional health and ‘social’ issues.
- We can’t use this version of wellbeing for deciding on things like climate change. Perhaps obviously, subjective wellbeing is not a good way to make decisions on things that are about the future and – implicitly – about assessments of future risks and discount rates.
As I hope this summary shows, this whole agenda is raising many fascinating issue. Many are familiar, a few are surprising, but all are making us think harder about the world and how to make it a better place. And that cannot be bad for the wellbeing of all of us.