Health, not wealth, makes us happy


For children it is eating breakfast and celebrating Christmas. Young adults find theirs through music, clothes and fast food. For people of more mature years, the greatest happiness is bestowed through old-fashioned community spirit. All ages, however, seem to agree that, fleeting pleasures aside, there is a holy trinity when it comes to how positive we feel about ourselves and where we live: good health, functioning relationships and a satisfying job.

These are the preliminary findings of Britain's first attempt to quantify a phenomenon that has until now been the preserve of poets and songwriters rather than statisticians. But David Cameron's determination that a happiness (or more accurately a wellbeing) index should become part of the way we measure ourselves as a society moved closer to being realised yesterday. The publication by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) of its initial report contained the responses of 34,000 people asked what aspects of their lives might be considered in the new measurement.

The £2m survey was ordered last year by the Prime Minister, a confessed optimist. From next summer, the index could be quoted alongside gross domestic product and longevity as a measure of national progress and a measure of policy success.

The responses received over the past 10 months – either online or during 175 public events with employers, religious groups, schools and others – will go towards creating the first set of national well-being indicators in the autumn with the publication of the initial ratings in July 2012. While suggestions varied by age and social grouping there were universal themes,said national statistician Jill Matheson. "People of all ages highlighted the importance of family, friends, health, financial security, equality and fairness in determining well-being," she said. Britain is not alone in attempting to create a functioning quality of life index. One of the ONS's advisory forum members is the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who has been involved in a similar exercise on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The British index will be drawn from two data sets. The first will be subjective assessments of an individual's own wellbeing level. More than 200,000 people have already completed the four questions in this April's integrated household survey, which asked respondents to mark themselves between one and 10 on satisfaction, anxiety, happiness and whether they felt their lives were worthwhile.

More questions are likely to be put in the ONS monthly opinions survey, based on the themes that emerged during the consultation, including sense of purpose and fulfilment, relationships and job satisfaction. Objective measures, including life expectancy and disposable income, may also be counted.

The eventual questionnaire could look as follows:

* Answer (on a scale from one to 10):

Overall, how satisfied are you with 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?

* Other questions (yet to be designed) will focus on sense of purpose and fulfilment; relationships with family and friends; leisure time; access to green spaces, levels of job satisfaction and sense of community.

* Objective wellbeing would then be measured by:

Life expectancy
Household income
Consumption levels
Access to subsidised health and education systems
Value of goods and services produced by each household