The UK has a unique resource. As of April 2011, the UK’s largest survey, the Annual Population Survey (APS), has included four questions on subjective well-being.

The data from the survey will allow analysts both inside and outside government to better understand the determinants of well-being.

This will provide opportunities to:

  1. Identify policies that are likely to lead to improving population well-being.
  2. Identify population groups with low well-being and for whom targeted action may be appropriate.
  3. Highlight population groups and areas with high well-being that might provide clues for others to learn from.

This report presents nef analysis of these data. It provides an overview of well-being in the UK, and uncovers interesting patterns related to ethnicity, employment patterns, working hours, local variation in well-being, and well-being inequality.

The subjective well-being questions in the APS ask:

  • Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
  • Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
  • Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Together, these four questions measure a range of well-being dimensions – hedonic, evaluative, and eudaimonic. As well as examining the different patterns of these measures, we combine them into a measure of overall well-being. Below are some of our key findings.

Disability

  • Our analysis shows that one of the biggest determinants of well-being is disability. Having a disability reduces life satisfaction by 0.70 points, increases anxiety by 0.81, and decreases overall well-being by 0.66.

Ethnicity

  • We find that Black, Arab, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian people experience significantly lower well-being than White people in the UK, even when controlling for individual characteristics excluding household income which is not measured in the survey). In other words, two people with similar socioeconomic situations are likely to have differing well-being depending on their ethnic group.

Impact of work

  • Individuals who are unemployed experience significantly lower well-being. The well-being of those who have been unemployed for more than six months is significantly lower than those who have been unemployed for less time.
  • Individuals who have temporary employment contracts experience lower well-being than those who do not, even when controlling for other factors.
  • Public sector workers find their lives more satisfying and feel that what they do is more worthwhile than those in the private sector, and those working in local government experience higher levels of well-being than those working in central government or the civil service.
  • Individuals who work part-time out of choice experience higher levels of well-being than those who work full-time, even when controlling for other factors.
  • Controlling for other factors, those who work very long hours (over 55 hours per week) experience lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety than those working more typical hours, but they also feel that what they do in life is more worthwhile. Even below this threshold, there is a negative association between working hours and happiness, and a positive association between working hours and levels of anxiety.
  • Being retired has a large positive effect on well-being, with overall wellbeing 0.79 points higher for retired people than for economically inactive people, all else being equal. Compared to employed people, retired people have an overall well-being score of 0.26 higher.

Local variation

  • All other things being equal, people living in rural areas have higher wellbeing than those in urban areas.
  • The highest proportion of people who score well on all four measures and the lowest proportion of people scoring badly on at least one measure are to be found on the small islands of the British Isles and the northern and southern coastal extremities of the country. The lowest levels of well-being are found in London and the Welsh Valleys. At regional level, these differences are statistically significant even when controlling for individual and household characteristics, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and the South West having higher than expected well-being, and London having lower than expected well-being.
  • An area’s Index of Multiple Deprivation is a strong predictor of well-being, with crime and low income being the most important elements of deprivation. Much remains unexplained by these objective metrics, however, highlighting the importance of using subjective well-being measures to assess the situation in different parts of the country.

Well-being inequalities

  • The average well-being of those in the bottom 20% of the well-being distribution is 4.8 – compared to 9.5 for those in the top 20%. This is a difference of 4.6 points.
  • Well-being inequality is highest in the Welsh Valleys and in and around Glasgow. The existence of local well-being inequalities suggests that local areas should seek to better understand who are the people with high and low well-being in their areas, and explore methods for reducing well-being inequality. Areas with high well-being inequality are not necessarily those with high income inequality, and vice versa.
  • Relatively high levels of inequality in well-being are found amongst older age groups, demonstrating that they should not be neglected in well-being analyses.

The government has signalled that it sees its role to be about enhancing the wellbeing of the population. Given that role, these results will be invaluable, not only to policymakers seeking to improve well-being, but for civil society organisations and advocacy groups that want to hold the government to account. Well-being is no longer a vague concept; it is something that can be measured, assessed, and ultimately improved.