Case study

What predicts our level of well-being?

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Author: Sally McManus, NatCen Social Research, in collaboration with Jenny Chenfrau, Cheryl Lloyd, Christos Byron, Caireen Roberts and Rachel Craig of NatCen Social Research; and Danielle De Feo, Department of Health

Date: 25 February 2014

Type of case study: Research

About the research

What makes us feel happy and fulfilled? For a long time social researchers and policymakers have been focused on studying and improving the negative aspects of life, rather than concentrating on its positive attributes. This report, commissioned by the Department of Health, explores what factors predict a level of positive well-being in people. Apart from being a positive end in itself, a high level of well-being has been found to foretell a longer life and a life without disability.

This research focuses on factors that are open to public policy intervention. Genetic predispositions and early childhood experiences are known to impact well-being in later life. However, it is important for policymakers to know what other factors need priority now so that the well-being of people will be improved throughout their lives.

The main findings of the study are:

  • Levels of well-being vary with age, dropping significantly during the mid-teenage years, at midlife, and again among the oldest years. Older women in this context represent a priority group, with very low levels of well-being. The different life circumstances people face to different ages are the main reason behind this well-being variation across the life course.
  • Predictors of well-being can differ between groups. For example, being a carer is more strongly linked with low well-being among working-age adults than it is among older people, and men’s well-being is more affected by employment status than women’s. However, many predictors of well-being remain consistent across the life course and are the same for both men and women.
  • Social relationships are key and this is evident in two ways. Firstly, people with higher well-being have more positive relationships, for example they experience less shouting and bullying, eat meals together and feel supported. Secondly, people with higher well-being tend to have parents, partners, and children who also have a high level of well-being.
  • The environment plays a role. A higher level of well-being is linked with positive neighbourhood social capital, living in a more affluent area, and having a well-maintained home. With relevance for the fuel poverty agenda, cold homes were strongly linked with lower well-being. Similarly, a stressful occupation and a troublesome school environment both predicted lower well-being.
  • Well-being is a central aspect of public health. People reporting good health are also more likely to have a high level of well-being, and this is important for public health. Some health behaviours are also closely linked with well-being. For example, the use of drugs and excessive gaming predict lower well-being among children. Eating more fruit and vegetables and not smoking predict higher well-being among adults.

About the data

This research draws on data from the Health Survey for England 2010, the Millennium Cohort Study 2008 Wave 4 and Understanding Society Waves 1 and 2. These datasets were key to this study as they are among the first to include good, validated measures of subjective well-being. Understanding Society was particularly important because it asks the same questions about measures of well-being to the same cohort at different points in time. The Millennium Cohort Study was significant because it gives insight into the experiences of very young children, including triangulation with the views of their parents and teachers. The Health Survey for England allowed the researchers to examine how health and well-being interrelate.

The Health Survey for England (HSE) is designed to monitor trends in the nation's health. The study provides regular information that cannot be obtained from other sources on a range of aspects concerning the public's health and many of the factors that affect health. Sponsored by the Information Centre for Health and Social Care and the Department of Health, the study began in 1991 and has been carried out annually since then. The survey combines questionnaire-based answers with physical measurements and the analysis of blood samples. Blood pressure, height and weight, smoking, drinking and general health are covered every year. An interview with each eligible person in the household is followed by a nurse visit.

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which began in 2000, is conducted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS). It aims to chart the conditions of social, economic and health advantages and disadvantages facing children born at the start of the 21st century The study has been tracking the 'Millennium children' through their early childhood years and plans to follow them into adulthood. It also provides a basis for comparing patterns of development with the preceding cohort studies (the National Child Development Study (NCDS) and the 1970 Birth Cohort Study (BCS70).

The Understanding Society study, or the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), which began in 2009, is conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), at the University of Essex. As a multi-topic household survey, the purpose of Understanding Society is to understand social and economic change in Britain at the household and individual levels. It is anticipated that over time the study will permit examination of short- and long-term effects of social and economic change, including policy interventions, on the general well-being of the UK population.

Methodology

A series of multiple linear regressions were carried out using data from the following studies: the Millennium Cohort Study on seven-year-olds, the Understanding Society Youth Cohort on 10- to 15- year-olds, the Understanding Society Adult Cohort to look across the life course, and the Health Survey for England to look at predictors of well-being separately for men and women.

Wide arrays of factors - spanning many aspects of life - were tested as potential predictors of subjective well-being. Subjective well-being analysis is sensitive to the measures of well-being used. Validated measures of subjective well-being have only recently been included in surveys, so the opportunity to carry out longitudinal analysis is just emerging now.

Publications and outputs

The research findings were published in the following research report:

Chanfreau, J., Lloyd, C., Byron, C., Roberts, C., Craig, R., De Feo, D., McManus, S. (2013) Predicting well-being, research report, NatCen Social Research, London. Retrieved 25 February 2014 from http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/205352/predictors-of-well-being.pdf

Findings were also presented at the following conference:

McManus, S. (2013) ‘Well-being: What the research and evidence tells us’, presentation to the Public Health England Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 10-11 September 2013. Retrieved 25 February 2014 from https://www.phe-events.org.uk/HPA/media/uploaded/EVHPA/event_173/McManus.pdf

This study has received coverage in the following media:

Chanfreau, J. (14 September 2013) ‘Is the midlife crisis a real thing?’, The New Statesman, [web edition]. Retrieved 25 February 2014 from http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2013/09/midlife-crisis-real-thing

Public Health England (2013) How healthy behaviour supports children’s well-being (PHE Publication No. 2013146), Retrieved 25 February 2014 from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/232978/Smart_Restart_280813_web.pdf

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