We are largely contented in our lives but worried about our community and our country
Yesterday's Office of National Statistics figures on life satisfaction in Britain paint a picture of a happy nation. While there are variations by geography and demography, the average life satisfaction in the UK is a healthy 7.4 out of 10. Not too shabby for a nation which has a reputation for complaining.
Yet there is an interesting split between our views about our own lives (which are generally positive and determined by our health and our relationships) and our views about life in Britain (where views are generally more negative and are heavily influenced by concerns about local and national issues such as immigration, politics and crime). Contrast, for example, the picture of the happy nation painted by the ONS figures with a Yougov survey undertaken to coincide with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee which portrayed a miserable, backwards-looking nation which felt that law and order, community spirit and Britain's standing in the world had all deteriorated during the past 60 years.
Having spent much of the last year travelling around the UK talking to people about life in Britain, I have seen the dichotomy between people's feelings about their own lives and their views about the nation in which they are living. I found a nation full of kind, generous people doing their best for themselves and their families; but I also found fear, prejudice and alienation, division by ethnicity and class, and a sense of powerlessness to change the status quo, a problem compounded by diminished trust in political leaders.
The Britain I saw was individually open and straight but nationally mistrustful; personally contented but socially divided. The energy that people put into doing the best for themselves and their families contrasted markedly with their apathy about engagement with national institutions, politics most of all. While our average life satisfaction is 7.4 out of 10, 75% of those surveyed by Yougov felt our community spirit had got worse in Britain. Even factoring in the rose-tinted view we may have on years gone by, these are striking findings which say much about the dichotomy between the individual and the community in Britain.
The biggest overlap between an individual's wellbeing and the national position relates to the economy and here the detail of today's figures which should give us some cause for concern. 45% of unemployed people in the ONS survey reported a low life satisfaction rate, more than double the rate for people who were in employment. If the economy continues to falter, then our life satisfaction could fall nationally too. We have been happy in our own lives but cynical about the country more broadly; what, we should ask ourselves, will happen if the cynicism remains but the happiness fades?
Joe Hayman is the author of British Voices: the UK in its own words - www.britishvoices.org.uk
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