How's life?

3 Jul 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Jul 2019

Governments traditionally measured performance by looking at Gross Domestic Product – the value of goods and services. These days the emphasis has shifted to measuring wellbeing – how people feel about their lives.


This is central to Northern Ireland’s Programme for Government which has 14 strategic outcomes which taken together are intended to provide the essential components of societal wellbeing. These include good health and education, economic success and confident and peaceful communities.

So how are we doing? How is wellbeing measured and, in what seems like uncertain, troubling times, how do we feel? To what extent, if at all, is the current political mess making people unhappy?

The answers are not what we might expect and suggest that public policy is not necessarily aligned with our greatest needs.  They suggest that for Northern Ireland loneliness is a more pressing societal problem that Brexit.

Back in 2010 former Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.”

This makes sense. Measuring the health of a country purely by its economic performance is not enough – and would still be inadequate even if the resulting wealth was distributed equitably between its citizens. It is how we feel about our lives that really matters.

The Office of National Statistics has been  measuring national wellbeing since 2011. It produces quarterly reports as well as more in-depth analyses of specific issues. It covers the whole of the UK with input from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).  The latest figures were published last August

There is no objective measurement of personal wellbeing, so the statisticians rely on large surveys of the population.  These are four of the key questions:

  • overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  • overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
  • overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

There is a consistent difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK reflected in all surveys published to date. In every one of these areas Northern Irish citizens report significantly higher levels of wellbeing than their English, Welsh and Scottish equivalents. For example in the 2018 survey 36.3% of NI respondents reported very high levels of life satisfaction (a score of 9 or 10) compared with 30.1% in the UK overall and 46.5% of NI respondents reported very low levels of anxiety (a score of 0 or 1) compared with 40.2% in the UK overall. 

We also get out into nature more and feel more part of the communities were we live. But we do less sport and go to fewer concerts and other cultural events.

The Northern Ireland results are used to help refine and develop the programme for government.  

Whilst the differences in life satisfaction between people in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are significant and have been consistent over time, what is not so clear is any explanation as to why this should be the case. We tend to be less wealthy, we have higher incidences of people with long-term conditions, we don’t even have a government. It’s a mystery and it would be helpful to get beyond speculation as to why, despite political and economic problems we constitute the happiest part of the UK.

Last November NISRA published a summary of the very latest findings.

It contains some worrying statistics about loneliness – some quite surprising. It showed that 20% of the population show signs of loneliness, with females more likely to feel lonely than men.

There continues to be much concern about rural isolation and loneliness yet the survey suggests that people living in urban areas are more lonely (22%) than those in rural areas (17%). Even more surprising to many will be the statistics around age. Many might assume that loneliness is more prevalent in older people. The survey suggests otherwise with 21% of people aged 16-34 eperiencing loneliness as opposed to 14% of the over 65s.

This is part of a national trend – and the ONS has drilled further into the issue, identifying three groups of people as being most at risk of being lonely:

·        Widowed older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions.

  • Unmarried, middle-agers with long-term health conditions.
  • Younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area.

Loneliness is a killer: it can increase the risk of premature death by up to 30%. Its prevalence is a serious challenge to wellbeing.

Around 200,000 older people across the UK, for example have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. It is hard to imagine how desperate that must be.

The supermarket Sainsbury’s also publishes a regular survey of wellbeing. Its latest Living Well Index was published this week.

It suggests that loneliness is gathering pace amongst the baby boomer generation with more people of that demographic living alone following relationship break-ups. It finds that almost 50% of the population socialise with family or friends once a month or less. It concludes that we are living more and more isolated lives and that as a result our wellbeing is declining.

Last year Theresa May launched a loneliness strategy for England, there are similar plans for Scotland and Wales. We will have to wait for the return of an executive to get one here. It should be a priority. Our Programme for Government is focused on wellbeing. Loneliness and isolation corrodes wellbeing, it must be addressed.



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