Home All Getting to Grips with the UK’s Well-Being

Getting to Grips with the UK’s Well-Being

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 21 November 2012

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Yesterday, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its first Annual Report on Measuring National Well-being (MNW).

The MNW program was set up in October 2010 in response to the acknowledgement that traditional economic measures of progress such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not provide a complete picture of how society is doing. The stated aim of the MNW program is to “develop and publish an accepted and trusted set of national statistics which help people understand and monitor well-being.” 

At Positive Psychology News we’ve talked about the MNW program and its progress several times over the past 2 years, for example, here, here and here.

Well-being Measurements

Yesterday’s Annual Report attempts to describe the UK’s well-being under three broad headings of the economy, people and the environment. Within these areas, the program identifies 10 different domains including governance, personal finance, the natural environment, where we live, what we do, and, at its core, individual well-being.

Within the 10 domains are many and varied statistics and measures (40 in total), some traditional and some new, for example:

  • Life satisfaction
  • % rating happiness yesterday
  • % rating anxiety yesterday
  • % rating how worthwhile are the things they do
  • Unemployment rate
  • % finding it quite or very difficult to get by financially
  • Satisfaction with family life
  • Satisfaction with social life
  • % with evidence of probable mental ill health
  • Satisfaction with amount/use of leisure time
  • Job satisfaction
  • % aged 16-64 with no educational qualifications
  • % feeling they belong to their neighbourhood
  • Satisfaction with health

The first four measures are in the core ‘individual well-being’ domain. You could argue that these come closest to well-being as positive psychologists would understand it.

[A link to the complete list of the domains and measures used in the ONS MNW Annual Report, as well as the most recent data collected, can be found in Annex A on page 60]

Reading through the MNW domains and measures prompted me to revisit the table of correlates with subjective well-being outlined in Dr Ilona Boniwell’s book, Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (a gem of a book, now in its 3rd edition). According to Boniwell, it would be worth examining and measuring the following factors because they are correlated with subjective well-being:

  • Leisure
  • Social connections
  • Subjective health
  • Sleep and exercise, and
  • Social class

Only the first three of these are actually measured in the MNW program. But interestingly, the MNW includes other measures which according to Boniwell aren’t correlated with well-being, such as:

  • Education level
  • Crime
  • Housing
  • Money (above the amount needed to meet basic needs)
  • Objective health


Why the Difference?

There are two possible reasons for this. First, it depends, of course, what we mean by ‘national well-being’. It could be defined as the sum of the individual well-being of all its citizens, in which case the five factors mentioned above would be irrelevant. The ONS approach to measuring national well-being, however, is slightly different. It is based on a report, written by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, on measuring economic performance, social progress, and environmental sustainability in France, which also calls for a global debate about “…societal values,  for what we, as a society, care about, and whether we are really striving for what is important” (p18). This wider definition of well-being, based on social progress, means that other measures (like the five above) have a place.

Secondly, the ONS has reported that it wanted to ‘develop measures based on what people tell us matters most’ because statistics need to be relevant. I’m all for doing everything possible to enable ordinary people to have a voice in government-led initiatives. However, you can’t escape from the fact that people don’t know what they don’t know. This is true of well-being. If people knew what was good for their well-being they wouldn’t continue to pursue financial wealth with the zeal they do. They wouldn’t continue to shop, shop, shop at the rate they do. People would, amongst other things, focus instead on developing better relationships with neighbors, family, and colleagues, spend more time with their children, see more of their friends, exercise more, spend more time outside in nature, and eat less junk food. Wouldn’t they?

Reaching for a Growth Mindset

We also have to consider the possible implications of including measures which the public says are important, but which positive psychology research suggests aren’t correlated with individual well-being.  It may distort priorities. The likelihood is that time, effort, and money will be spent on developing and implementing policies and programs of action which ultimately have no impact on individual well-being.

Take education. The MNW report cites the New Economics Foundation’s work on the importance of learning as a way of developing social interaction, self-esteem, and feelings of competency. All positive psychologists would agree that educational qualifications aren’t necessarily the same thing as learning. If we consider Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, we could say that obtaining qualifications is more fixed mindset and learning more growth mindset.

We in the UK have just woken up to the fact that focusing on targets to increase school exam passes year-on-year can be counterproductive. So, we could be successful in raising the level of educational qualification in the UK and still find it makes no difference to individual well-being.  What would have more impact on both national and individual well-being would be to find ways to promote a national growth mindset instead.


The first Annual Report of the Measuring National Well-being program makes a fascinating and absorbing read even if you are not keen on statistics and graphs! and even if you’re not a UK citizen. Whatever your interest in positive psychology and well-being, you’re sure to find something in it which surprises you, such as the percentage of UK citizens living below the poverty line, healthy life expectancy, the percentage of people reporting happiness and high anxiety yesterday. The report may prompt you to question your understanding of the subject and how you can promote well-being for others, whether in your work or in life generally.

If you can’t face the full 63 pages, check out the National Well-being Interactive Wheel of Measures, a simpler way of getting to grips with the UK’s well-being in 2012.

Let me know what you think.



Boniwell, I. (2006). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness (3rd edition – coming out December 31, 2012). London: Open University Press.

Boniwell, I. (2006). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (2nd Edition). London: PWBC.

New Economics Foundation (2011). Five ways to well-being: New applications, new ways of thinking.

New Economics Foundation (2010). Five well-being postcards.

Self, A.,  Thomas, J. & Randall, C. (2012). Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK, 2012. Office for National Statistics.

Stiglitz, J., Sen, A. & Fitoussi, JP. Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

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Clive Leach 21 November 2012 - 3:22 pm

Fantastic article Thank you! One of the best I’ve read! The NMW initiative is to be welcomed but it’s so important that they get it right and this article so clearly highlights the evidence that some if it, although well intentioned, will not hit the mark.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 22 November 2012 - 6:22 pm

Hi Clive

Thanks for your comments, I’m glad you liked the article. It’s true I have some reservations about this programme 🙂

On the plus side if it gets the UK thinking and talking about well-being then that’s got to be a good thing. And there does need to be more emphasis on the ‘group’ or ‘society’ aspects of well-being, rather than focusing just on the individual, which is what most positive psychology does. Having said that, the aims of the MNW programme don’t actually include increasing well-being, which would obviously be a wasted opportunity!

There’s a lots of data here which warrants much more scrutiny and discussion than one article can cover, so I may be returning to this topic later.

Warm wishes

Carmen Maria Romero-Positive Physical Therapist 28 November 2012 - 7:40 pm

Being that objective health and subjective health are considered as integral factors of well being and happiness…has the UK or the US initiated resiliency training programs or positive psychology initiatives within government health care systems, local community hospitals, medical-nursing-rehabilitation schools??

Addressing positive organizational management with evidenced based strategies and positive wellness interventions within schools and with practicing health care professionals, over burdened by “Daring Greatly” , may have a beautiful much needed effect on communities, employees, patients and families in a most vulnerable space…

Curious and Hopeful,
Carmen Maria PT

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 November 2012 - 5:02 am

Hello Carmen

Thank you for your enquiry. Both US and UK have implemented resilience programmes in education, for example the Penn Resiliency Program http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/prpsum.htm, and it’s UK counterpart, the UKRP which was trialled in three Local Authority areas from 2007 – the final evaluation of the UKRP commissioned by the UK’s Dept for Education can be found here https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RR097.pdf. Some schools are still using the UKRP but it has not been commissioned by the UK government for wholesale implementation in UK schools yet (see the ‘policy & delivery’ section of the report).

Another well-known resilience programme being used in the UK at the moment is Bounce Back! (http://www.bounceback.com.au/) created by Professors Toni Noble and Helen McGrath. This award-winning programme has been running for over a decade in Australia, was piloted with a group of schools in Scotland in 2009-2010 and is being promoted by the Young Foundation throughout the rest of the country (reception up to Year 8). I have to declare an interest here as I work for the Young Foundation as an adviser and trainer on this programme. You can find more information here: http://youngfoundation.org/projects/bounce-back/

The UKRP and Bounce Back! are (of course) both evidence-based but they differ in how they are applied. One of the reasons that Bounce Back appeals to UK teachers is that whilst the reference materials are comprehensive, they are also easy to grasp, great fun and flexible i.e. they allow the teacher the freedom to select what is most appropriate (in terms of topic and activity) for the situation they are dealing with, and thus can be more readily incorporated into the existing curriculum. That said, Noble and McGrath themselves are very clear about how programme works most effectively e.g. when run as a whole school, universal programme, rather than with selected at-risk students.

Then there are various well-known professionals, such as Jennifer Fox Eades, who has been pioneering strengths-based approaches in UK primary schools for many years.

Individual schools are creating their own positive psychology-based well-being and resilience curricula, such as Wellington College, and Haberdashers’ Aske’s (which has been working in partnership with the University of East London with Dr Ilona Boniwell, Lucy Ryan (MAPP) and myself).

Whilst we’re talking about education, we shouldn’t forget about the well-being of the staff who work in schools. This is the focus of the UK organisation, Worklife Support (http://www.worklifesupport.com/) which has been helping schools measure and implement well-being programmes for staff for over a decade.

As for the health sector, in the UK the application of positive psychology is again piecemeal. Numerous ‘health and wellbeing’ programmes are being run by individual health authorities, however not all are based directly on positive psychology evidence. The commissioning landscape within the NHS is in flux as the government continues to reform and privatise the health service so it’s hard to say if, how and when there will be a UK-wide initiative to increase well-being or resilience.

One peculiar aspect of being British is that on the whole, we strongly resist being told what to do, even if it is good for us, which presents unique challenges for those promoting positive psychology!

I would welcome hearing more from you and other readers about other PP-based health/education initiatives.

Warm wishes


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