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The issue of well-being (sometimes referred to as happiness) has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Academics such as Richard Layard, think tanks such as New Economics Foundation, and commentators such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury have emphasised the need for well-being rather than economic growth to be the target for economic and social policy.
The Government has responded to this groundswell of interest and in 2013 for the first time the ONS published data on the nation’s wellbeing. To explore whether there is a city perspective to the national wellbeing debate Cities Outlook 2014 explored how the UK’s 64 biggest cities scored and ranked on Life Satisfaction: one of the four indicators that make up the well-being idea. (The other 3 being Happiness, Anxiety and Worthwhileness).
So what did we find? In truth not very much: it is not a story with a ‘cities’ angle to it. The first point to note is how little variation there is across the 64 cities: a spread of 0.4 percentage points covers all 64. And there is no statistical difference between cities on average and the UK as a whole. The second point to note is that unlike most of the other economic indicators included in Cities Outlook there is no geographical pattern to the data.
For interest, our analysis found that 45 cities (70 per cent) saw their measure of life satisfaction increase from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Aldershot had the highest increase change and, along with Crawley and Ipswich, also has the highest absolute life satisfaction rating in the period 2012-13.
So why do these statistics tell us so little? There are three reasons.
Firstly, this is in part a reflection of the nature of well-being and particularly how the ONS is measuring it. (There are other ways of measuring wellbeing: see the chapter on Happynomics in Tim Harford’s latest book). Obviously well-being as a concept is highly subjective. For example, it’s unlikely that one person’s assessment of well-being is the same as another’s or indeed consistent between surveys.
Secondly and more significantly, as Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out in his brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow, we are poor decision makers when it comes to our own well-being. We suffer from what he calls a ‘focusing illusion’. We tend to focus on the moment, overestimating the importance of certain factors such as buying a car in determining our happiness and ignoring the factors that really matter such as having a job and being healthy.
Finally, other research, some of which is brilliantly told by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, shows that the factors that influence our responses to well-being questions such as ‘how satisfied with your life are you?’ can be seemingly as banal as whether we are hungry, or whether we are smiling, or whether it’s raining, or whether we’ve recently heard words such as ‘sunny’, ‘young’ and ‘vibrant’ or words such as ‘old’, ‘raining’ and ‘lethargic’.
One sobering reflection from these findings is that in some crucial areas of our lives, we don’t know what contributes to our well-being and it suggests we can’t fully trust ourselves to give the ‘right’ answers about our well-being, never the mind make the ‘right’ decisions about how to increase it in the long term. And if we can’t trust ourselves because we’re so affected by the moment, should we really be demanding that policy-makers use our responses to craft economic and social policy?
This doesn’t mean that improving the well-being of individuals and communities shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of policy. It should. But it does suggest that national and city policymakers should be targeting wellbeing obliquely rather than directly. And this means focusing on more traditional issues such as growth, job creation and education: not least because wellbeing correlates negatively with unemployment, ill-health and poverty and positively with wealth, employment and education.
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