As part of our four year networks and wellbeing project, I, alongside many excellent volunteers, have been knocking on the nation’s front doors and asking them about their social connections and their wellbeing. Part of the survey includes the four ONS wellbeing questions detailed below – happiness, anxiety, purpose and meaning – and these questions have often left both our volunteers and respondents a little cold.
I suggest an alternative approach below.
A report released this week by the ONS shows that being connected to other people is crucial to people’s wellbeing: so why isn’t the government measuring it?
Whilst the Government’s measurement of wellbeing should be commended, the measures the Organisation of National Statistics is currently using are far too individualistic, and fail to see the importance of human connections in human happiness. This means a very good initiative may fall short of its true potential: to truly understand wellbeing the ONS needs to invest in understanding connectedness.
The measures released so far will only give us a partial understanding of the nation’s true wellbeing. Scaled 0-10, these measures are:
• How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• How happy did you feel yesterday?
• How anxious did you feel yesterday?
• To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
Whilst positive feelings are important, they are not enough as a measure of wellbeing. This is recognised by the ONS, who are in the process of trialling different measures. However, the evidence so far is that measures around connectedness are only marginal to their study, when really they should be at the centre of it.
Further measures being tested include looking at whether people feel lonely in an average day, and might soon include asking people whether they have somebody to talk to, or someone they can ask for help from. These are all steps in the right direction, but they are a very individualist take on social relations which I fear will not tell us all that much.
Studies show that women in tightly knit social networks tend to fare far worst in times of crisis than women whose networks have space built in
Very few people have no-one to talk to, and feeling lonely -“perceived social isolation” – is more a subjective measure of mental wellbeing than a reflection of the people around us. If we truly want to understand how people’s connections impact on their wellbeing we need to start asking questions about numbers of connections and to start looking at the degree of autonomy and control that people have in their family and social life.Not all connections are good.
Studies show that women in tightly knit social networks tend to fare far worst in times of crisis than women whose networks have space built in: if your husband is your best friend’s best friend, goes to the footie with your dad, and plays golf with your boss, divorce is going to hit a lot harder than if there was some space between the various components of your life.
By tapping into knowledge about the importance of people’s connections we not only see their wellbeing now, but their future wellbeing potential. If you ask someone how happy they are you get a snapshot of today. By developing measures that look at people’s position within their own social networks you can start to see where future vulnerabilities may lie.
This criticism is borne out by theNational Statistician’s report on their wellbeing consultation: people believe that well-being should be measured in terms of health, connections to friends, family and partners, job satisfaction and security, and satisfaction with their wider environment.
People’s real-life social networks are important in all these realms. People cited health as being fundamental to their wellbeing, and we know that people with diverse networks tend to be healthier and happier. Satisfying employment is fundamental to people’s wellbeing , and not only do our social connections often help us to find work, but diverse networks are associated with having a higher status and better paid job.
We have argued elsewhere that policy needs to take account and build on people’s social networks. Hopefully the fact that the case for valuing people’s relationships has come out so strongly in the ONS’s own research will mark a change toward more a nuanced and connections-based way of measuring our wellbeing. We don’t live our lives as isolated individuals, so how could we ever be happy as such?