Change Work April 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

In the USA, everyone has the right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".  In the UK, whilst our our lives are pretty well protected and we're comparatively free, we haven't concerned ourselves much with happiness. But all that's going to change!

"Well-being" is the new goal and the Office for National Statistics has been charged with the task of monitoring how good we feel. Government policy will then be guided by this measure with the aim of increasing well-being.

A recent paper* from the Institute of Economic Development (IED) reviews the evidence for how economic factors in particular affect perceived happiness. For example, it seems that increasing income makes us happier up to a limit, beyond which it makes no more difference. For most of us in developed countries, we're more concerned about our relative income: how rich we are compared with others around us.

And not surprisingly, one of the biggest negative factors is unemployment, and your drop in life satisfaction if you lose your job will be disproportionately greater than loss of income alone would explain. Related to this, if you have a job, your perception of how safe it is will strongly affect your well-being.

These factors lead to the paper's first two policy objectives that government should be pursuing:

1. A decent income for everyone

2. Secure, full employment

Nothing new there and nothing that any government (in a democracy) wouldn't sign up to.

The other four objective are a bit different though:

3. Stable communities and work spread throughout the country

The opposite of "get on your bike" to find a job!

4. Satisfying work

Feeling "lucky to have a job at all" is no longer enough.  Presumably, even the lowest paid jobs should still be satisfying to do - although they won't be that low paid on account of the first objective!

5. Work in the right quantities

If working hours are too long then well-being suffers.  (I wonder if this is true when the work is truly satisfying.)  But whether you enjoy your work or not, having enough free time is clearly important if you're going to engage with your community and take part in the "big society".

6. An economy that encourages people to do things rather than passively consume things

This seems to be about generally spending our resources on things that are good for us, emotionally as well as physically.

The first two of these objectives can, in principle, be put into quantitative terms: how much income is "decent", how many jobs are available, etc.  But in contrast, the last four involve some very subjective measures.  They relate to how people experience their lives, as opposed to how their lives actually are.

What's the difference?

Well, although the objective circumstances you find yourself in at any particular time influence how you feel, they don't determine it. Different people will experience similar circumstances differently. All of us will experience similar events differently at different times. It really does depend on how you look at it!

So how might the IED's last four objectives be approached? How do you ensure that communitites are stable? What exactly is satisfying work? What is the right amount of work - and is it the same for everyone? How do you encourage people to "do things"?

I'm looking forward to a lot more discussion of these questions and to a lot more measurement of factors affecting well-being. And may I suggest that we need a lot more awareness - perhaps through education - of how to manage ourselves, so that we can experience "wellness" in most circumstances?

Perhaps we've got things the wrong way round. Perhaps the ideal circumstances that the IED describes can only be created by people who already feel well most of the time. If we wait for government to make things better we'll wait a long time with no guarantee of a better experience at the end.

* "Will measuring well-being change the way we develop the economy?" - Charles Seaford (no longer available).