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Good News, We're Slightly Happier... But Why?

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How satisfied are you with your life? It's a question we've probably all pondered at times. But for the last two years it's also been one of a handful of new "subjective wellbeing" questions which the Office for National Statistics has been asking people all over the UK.

You may be surprised to learn that the UK is now leading the way in terms of officially measuring the wellbeing of its citizens. We're at the forefront of a growing global movement where people are recognising that there's more to a good society than just economic growth - and that we need measures of progress which reflect the quality of life as people actually experience it.

Yesterday we saw something rather remarkable on two counts. Firstly, the publication of the very first official year-on-year comparisons of UK wellbeing, a landmark moment in this new era of measuring what matters. And secondly, we had the unexpected news that, as a nation, we've actually become happier and less anxious over the last 12 months. Not hugely happier, but a statistically significant step in the right direction nonetheless.

The proportion of people giving a high life satisfaction score (7 or more out of 10) rose from 75.9% in 2012 to 77% in 2013. And the proportion of people giving a low (i.e. positive) score for "feeling anxious" (3 or less out of 10) rose from 60.1% to 61.5%. That sounds promising, but how has this improvement in average wellbeing been distributed across the population? Well, the ONS hasn't yet provided a regional breakdown, but it does appear that the people with the lowest wellbeing have seen some of the benefit. For example, the proportion of people with a very low life satisfaction score has fallen from 6.6% to 5.8% and the proportion with a very high (i.e. negative) score for "feeling anxious" has fallen from 21.8% to 20.9%. Encouragingly, it's not just a case of the fairly happy folks getting even happier.

So what's going on here? Is this an "Olympics bounce", a reflection of a slightly improving economic outlook or something else? In a separate recent analysis, the ONS explored the factors that most affect our personal wellbeing and identified three that appear to make the biggest difference. The first is whether we perceive our health to be good. The second is our employment status, with unemployment clearly being very detrimental to wellbeing. And the third is our marital status, with people who are married or in civil partnerships being happier than those who aren't. Of these the most likely contributor to recent improvements in national wellbeing is the slight reduction in unemployment over the last year, which is clearly very welcome, although levels remain worryingly high.

But I believe the ONS analysis is missing some vitally important contributors to wellbeing. Research suggests that the external circumstances of our lives generally have a smaller impact on our happiness than our attitudes and actions. And at Action for Happiness, our review of the latest evidence has identified ten areas where actions we take as individuals tend to increase our wellbeing. We call these the Ten Keys to Happier Living. They include having positive relationships and strong social connections, giving to others, being mindful, staying physically active, taking a resilient approach to adversity, pursuing life goals and being part of something bigger than ourselves. These are the real drivers of wellbeing just as much as having a job, good health or being married.

The ONS identified the Jubilee celebrations and Olympics as factors that may have contributed to our boost in wellbeing since last year. I suspect this may indeed be true. But if so, this is not thanks to our love of the Royal Family or our outstanding sporting success. It's because these events encouraged actions which helped us to connect in our communities, to share enjoyable times together and to feel part of something bigger. Although these once-in-a-lifetime events won't be repeated any time soon, there's still so much more we can do to create and maintain those community connections and that positive and outward-looking spirit.

Finally, the ONS has also uncovered some rather startling findings regarding people's levels of anxiety. Some of the most anxious people are those who, you might imagine, have least to worry about. For example, people in higher professional occupations report more anxiety than those in lower supervisory and technical occupations. People with the highest levels of education are more anxious than people with lower educational attainment. And most surprisingly, people who live in the least deprived areas actually report higher levels of anxiety than those who live in the most deprived areas. This is a timely reminder that anxiety, and indeed depression, are classless and affect people from all walks of life. Many of those we hold up as role models and paragons of success are actually trapped in busy and stressful lives where they feel under constant pressure and unhappy. As Arianna Huffington says, it's time for us to redefine what we mean by success.

So this move towards measuring wellbeing should be warmly welcomed. It's a call for governments to place a greater focus on the things that affect people's quality of life - and nothing could be more important. But it's also a reminder for each of us that real success and happiness come from a balanced life, with time to connect with the people around us and to pursue the things that really matter.