At the end of 2010 the Office of National Statistics was asked to implement Prime Minister David Cameron's ambition of measuring people's well-being. The first results of the exercise, large-scale surveys conducted in 2011 to gauge people's self-reported well-being, have just been released. The average score for self-reported life satisfaction in England was 7.4 out of 10, with 75.5% of people scoring seven or more out of 10. This looks more than creditable and indeed surprising in the context of a very weak economy and high unemployment. Observers have rushed to invoke the traditional British stiff upper lip and resilience and a variety of psychological explanations.
However, there are a number of crucial caveats that must be emphasised. First of all, the surveys were taken before the winter months, and these have been shown to be negatively correlated with self-reports of happiness and life satisfaction. Second, in internationally comparable surveys (for example, by the OECD in 2010), the UK scores a modest 7 on average life satisfaction—lower than at least 10 other developed OECD economies. Third, a favoured idea of the happiness gurus that well-being is independent of income, which the recent survey results may seem to support, and that well-being can somehow even become a substitute for economic improvement at a time of stagnant growth, is very wrongheaded. Wealth undoubtedly remains one of the main drivers of life satisfaction. Finally, there is a very strong link between life satisfaction and employment status. In particular, satisfaction levels plummet with the length of time spent unemployed. Average life satisfaction scores in the surveys fell from 6.9 for those who had been unemployed for up to six months, to 6.2 for those who were jobless from 6 to 12 months, and 6 for those who had been unemployed for more than a year. Given recent employment trends, this suggests that there could be a significant fall in average life satisfaction at the time of the next survey.