The Office for National Statistics yesterday released its latest publication of personal wellbeing data, covering the whole of the UK to the end of the 2015-16 financial year.
It is a fascinating dataset to explore. For the first time, ONS has provided some handy interactive tools allowing us to easily explore data covering a 5 year period. These allow us to compare average rates of life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety, and feeling that the things we do in life are worthwhile, across almost every local authority in the UK. In an earlier release, you can also explore the distribution of wellbeing (comparing the proportion of low, medium, high and very high scores), as well as comparing regional variations and the different experiences of men and women.
Wellbeing data certainly has high geek value. But does it tell us anything useful? And should anyone in the charity sector pay attention to this slightly abstract, high-level analysis?
It certainly has some uses. For example, if you are a charity operating in a defined area, how the wellbeing of that area compares to other places in the UK is highly relevant. Is wellbeing in your locality lower than average? If so, can your intervention help to boost wellbeing rates? By using the interactive ONS maps, it is easy to see how wellbeing in each local authority compares to other areas, and how it has fluctuated over time. This type of information could help to provide compelling evidence that a particular area of the country needs further investment or support.
Similarly, if you are a charity operating with a defined group of people, how does their average wellbeing compare to the general population? If you asked your service users the same questions that ONS uses, with the same scale, how would their responses compare? Again, this type of information could help you to build the case for investment in supporting groups of people whose wellbeing is lower than average.
Of course, wellbeing data also has limitations, and charities should be mindful of these if they choose to make use of this resource. Important drawbacks include:
1. By nature, wellbeing data is highly subjective, vulnerable to human irrationality and wider contextual factors. For example, cultural expectations may impact some people's willingness to report low wellbeing. Faith is known to increase a person's wellbeing, so areas of the country with strong religious communities may appear to have higher average wellbeing than other areas, even if all other factors are equal. Past experience of conflict or trauma may make a person more appreciative of stable life than others without that experience. (The last two points may go some way towards explaining why Northern Ireland is the UK region with the highest average wellbeing, which has confounded some commentators).
2. Arguably, the way the data is collected - using a scale of 0-10 - limits our ability to make meaningful comparisons of average scores over time. A fixed scale gives no room for the 'overall happiness' or 'overall life satisfaction' of the population to expand. Compare with GDP figures - there is no upper limit to a country's GDP, so the data can show an indefinite rise, if a country continues getting wealthier. But if a country continues getting happier, ONS wellbeing data won't be able to show this rise, because we can never be happier than '10 out of 10'. As a result, average rates of wellbeing are unlikely to change dramatically over time, so it is difficult to tell whether wellbeing overall is improving or not.
Nonetheless, wellbeing data can tell us something useful, and I would encourage charities to put it to work. Explore the ONS interactive tools, consider what the data says about your work, and take advantage of this opportunity to access high quality data on a topic that means a great deal to our sector.
We have seen personal well-being improving on a UK-wide basis over the past five years. But today's data paints a richer picture, enabling people to explore what's been happening in their local area. This will help individuals, communities and local authorities to look at well-being locally alongside other traditional measures of progress. Dawn Snape, Quality of Life, Office for National Statistics