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How can we measure happiness?

Photo used to accompany expert comment piece from SERCH Tuesday 7 October 2014

As the Office for National Statistics releases figures on happiness in the UK, Dr Valeria Andreoni, Lecturer in Microeconomics in the Liverpool Hope Business School, analyses the findings, compares them to regional statistics and considers - how can we measure happiness?  

Last week, the Office for National Statistics released its updated figures on national wellbeing.  The main source of new interest was on personal wellbeing, the so-called ‘happiness index,’ based on a household survey that asks people how they rate their own life. They found that:

  • 27% of UK adults rated their life satisfaction at a very high level in 2013/14, an increase on the previous year.
  • Unchanged on the previous year, 6% of UK adults rated their life satisfaction at a low level in 2013/14.
  • 33% of UK adults rated their happiness at a very high level in 2013/14, an increase on the previous year.
  • 10% of UK adults rated their happiness at a low level in 2013/14, a fall on the previous year.
  • 33% of UK adults gave very high ratings in 2013/14 when asked if they feel the things they do in life are worthwhile, a rise on the previous year.
  • around 4% of UK adults gave very low ratings when asked if they feel the things they do in life are worthwhile.
  • 39% of UK adults rated their anxiety levels as very low in 2013/14 with more people reporting low anxiety this year than last.
  • 20% of UK adults rated their anxiety at a high level in 2013/14, a fall on the previous year.

 Source: ONS website

These latest UK wide figures allow us to directly compare the overall picture in the UK with that measured for the Liverpool area through Liverpool Hope University’s Socio-Economic Research Centre (SERCH) report, published in July 2014, based on a household survey undertaken in January. Read the full report: “Beyond Growth: Economic Wellbeing in the Liverpool City Region”

Firstly, let’s just take a snapshot of where the Liverpool City Region is, according to our data, compared to that measured nationally.  The graph below shows the average ratings and a clear pattern that the Liverpool City Region consistently rated lower than the UK average.   

ONS survey graph

The message presented by ONS focussed on change.  It contends that across the UK, life is getting better for people, with overall life satisfaction improving year on year.  The reasons put forward by the ONS are almost exclusively economic.  The argument is that periods of recession significantly affect peoples’ feeling of wellbeing; a more positive economic performance and economic outlook means people feel better.

There is little doubt that unemployment is falling, in Liverpool as well as elsewhere.  However, in July, SERCH called into question the types of job opportunities being created. The changing labour market in Liverpool City Region is being driven by self-employment or part-time employment, and the critical factor is that neither form of employment pays well.  ONS’s own evidence shows that real wages have fallen continuously since 2009.

In the Liverpool City Region, this is accentuated by persistent gaps in ‘personal’ measures, with lower household income, persistent levels of poverty and generally poorer health and education.  Taking a comparative look at the data like this can leave you feeling a bit gloomy, but it also provides a source of challenge to the current government policy and the City Region’s adopted strategies.  Is improved economic outlook manifesting itself in cities like Liverpool?  Who is benefitting from the growth?

The SERCH report in July highlighted that relationship data in the Liverpool City Region was consistently higher than across the rest of the country.  People were also generally happier with their environment and their leisure time.  I’m sure this this tells us what we feel intuitively; that Liverpool is a place that looks after friends, families and neighbours, and is generally a decent place to live. 

ONS should be commended for their approach in measuring and refining a wider set of wellbeing indicators, and for looking beyond the economy as a measure of how well we are doing. 

Our role in SERCH is to highlight the local and regional picture and ask some challenging questions of government (in all its forms) about the type of Liverpool City Region we want to see.  Despite the wider indicators, it feels to us that we should come back to the fundamental issue of the economic inequality to explain how people are feeling.

Technical note: For Life satisfaction; Worthwhile and Happiness Yesterday the graph identifies the % of people that expressed a medium/high rating (it is the % of people that ranked life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness yesterday between 7 and 10). For Anxious Yesterday the graph identifies the % of people that expressed a medium/low rating (it is the % of people that ranked the level of anxious yesterday between 0 and 3).

 

 Valeria Andreoni‌Dr Valeria Andreoni is Lecturer in Microeconomics in the Liverpool Hope Business School. She is also a member    of SERCH, The Socio-Economic Research Centre at Liverpool Hope University Business School. SERCH provides independent socio- economic analysis and critical commentary with a focus on the Liverpool City Region and the  wider North West England area.

   View Dr Andreoni's full research profile 

   Study Business at Liverpool Hope University 

   SERCH (Socio-Economic Research Centre at Liverpool Hope) 

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