Focus on well-being

Individuals are placing a growing importance on their happiness and quality of life (e.g. friends, health, emotional and spiritual well-being etc). Many are therefore concentrating on improving these aspects of their lives over money and material things - an approach only heightened by the economic downturn. Increased social and economic inequality is placing stress upon social cohesion, impacting strongly on individual well-being. This focus on well-being is gathering pace not just within the individual sphere but also within current and proposed public policy. This has led to the Office for National Statistics now measuring people's happiness; the first results are expected to be published in 2012.

Well-being consists of many different and diverse aspects that make it difficult to accurately quantify. There have however been some noticeable trends over the past few years. Despite the economic downturn overall life satisfaction has remained relatively stable, increasing slightly between 2007 and 2010. While significant differences exist depending on social grade this gap is closing, due mainly to an increase in average life satisfaction scores from those in the lowest social grade. People feel more in control of their lives now than they did 3 years ago. People are more satisfied with many aspects of their lives now including the achievement of goals, leisure, health and day to day activities. People are spending more time with friends and family, and are more involved in social activities in the local area.  There has however been a noticeable reduction in satisfaction with relationships in 2010 compared to 2007 [1].

What are the implications?

  • An increasing focus on achieving a good work-life balance over high salaried jobs.
  • Growing importance of leisure time as an aspect of life satisfaction. While the economic downturn has restricted any real increase in time spent on leisure activities their growing importance remains.
  • Growing importance of organisational values as experiencing a sense of purpose at work becomes as (or more) important than earning large amounts of money
  • A growing sense that living an ethically responsible and sustainable life means a happier, higher quality of life. (See ethical living and consumerism).
  • A rise in the experience economy as individuals consume a diverse range of experiences to enhance their quality of life (see trends in volunteering).
  • Some people may be more likely to volunteer if volunteering increasingly becomes seen as another way of improving an individual’s quality of life (see trends in volunteering).
  • Increased interest from policy makers in how charities make their beneficiaries, staff and volunteers happier.

Moving forward

The sector has been good at making disadvantaged people's lives better. As society as a whole seeks to become happier, there are lessons that the sector can share on how to do just that.

  • What principles underly the work your organisation does?
  • How can the work your organisation does be applied to making 'ordinary' people's lives better?
  • Is there scope for providing training and consulting to councils, local government, brands and HR Managers on how to make people happier?

Well-being links to all civil society organisations in some form or another. As happiness and quality of life becomes more important to the public, including experiencing a sense of purpose at work, the sector needs to make sure it retains its competitive advantage by continuing to be value driven.

  • How can your organisation emphasise the importance of its values and the causes it champions in order to attract potential employees?
  • This might mean investing in marketing strategies that promote your organisation’s services and causes that will appeal to a range of and different audiences.

Changing lifestyles and the importance of leisure time means that organisations will have to offer a wider breadth of employment and volunteering opportunities.

  • What flexible working arrangements can you put in place to attract or retain employees?

An increasing focus on well-being may mean more people choose to spend their time volunteering as a means of enhancing their quality of life. As well as this, with increased levels of unemployment in the wake of the economic downturn more people may wish to spend their free time more productively.

  • How much do you know about why volunteers choose to work with you? Are these reasons changing?
  • How can your organisation attract more volunteers?
  • Should you invest in volunteer recruitment and management?

Increasing focus on wellbeing within the realm of government and public policy may lead to a greater access to statistics and analysis of public well-being in various forms.

  • How could your organisation make use of new potential sources of information?

Want to know more?


National Accounts of Well-being

Published by: The New Economics Foundation – a think tank

Date: 2009

Format: Web & PDF

What is it? A guidance report for policy makers outlining proposals for a common system of measurement placing well-being as a central objective in societal progress.

How useful is this? This report examines how and why government and policy makers should focus on measuring happiness and wellbeing of citizens instead of using purely economic growth indicators (which tell us little about the success of a country in promoting a good life for its citizens).  It sets out a frame work for developing a National Account of Well-being in order to provide policy makers with a chance to better understand the impact of their decisions on people’s lives.  It is proposed that this momentum towards well-being measurement will help governments “reconnect” with their citizens and civil society, potentially opening up new directions for third sector organisations.

Other comments:  Pages 15 and 16 of the full report illustrates the increasing prevalence of well-being in policy thinking over the past few years.  An older NEF publication (2004) looked purely at what a government manifesto on wellbeing may look like

What’s wrong with wellbeing?

Published by: The Guardian

Date: 2009

Format: Web

What is it? An article discussing wellbeing as a political goal and advocating a change in public policy in order to increase quality of life.

How useful is this? This brief comment piece, while potentially self promoting, examines how current public policy may well be antithetical to promoting overall wellbeing. It suggests that a change in policy is needed in order to lay down a framework in society allowing us to maximise wellbeing, and that this would be a true measurement and indicator of future political success.

State of Joy: Why your country needs you to be happy

Published by: The Independent

Date: 2010

Format: Web

What is it? An article discussing the rise of wellbeing on the political agenda, theories surrounding “positive psychology” and whether or not this movement should be feared, or embraced.

How useful is this? This quite detailed article looks in depth at the increasing attention government is paying to issues surrounding mental health and general wellbeing, briefly touching upon the abundance of think tank policy proposals advocating this direction of change. It examines theories behind “positive psychology”, looking not only at the championed benefits supporting the well-being agenda but also the key weaknesses behind the arguments, suggesting improving positive psychology may not be all it is made out to be.  It may also be a dangerous direction for public policy to take, potentially infringing on basic rights of privacy and hastily pushing positive psychology theories and ideas that may not be as researched and watertight as we would be led to believe.

Other Comments: A test at the bottom of the article allows you to explore your own happiness.

Wellbeing, happiness and third sector leadership

Published by: Acevo - a third sector infrastructure body

Date: 2007

Format: PDF

What is it? A briefing on the role of the third sector in the new wellbeing and happiness agenda.

How useful is this? This briefing examines what wellbeing means for the third sector now and in the future, providing a policy and theoretical background, and including case exemplars from a number of organisations.  It finds that new conceptions of wellbeing may provide a new way of characterising third sector activity, and makes recommendations for both policy makers and third sector leaders.


  1. 2010 update on Wellbeing Statistics - Defra, 2010 [back]
Last updated at 17:16 Thu 03/Mar/11.

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Third Sector Foresight

Interested in this? Have a look at the Future of Wellbeing seminar taking place on 23 February

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