Following her coverage of the national  well-being debate and the exclusion of culture from the Office of National Statistics’ measures, Susan Oman looks at its most recent report and discusses what it might signify for culture’s future role in the UK.



November’s publication of the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) report ‘Measuring national well-being: Life in the UK’ marks two years since David Cameron tasked the ONS with interrogating our  well-being. The report claims to provide “an overview of  well-being in the UK today”, which is “discussed in terms of the economy, people and the environment”. It does this without explaining what exactly is understood by  well-being or how this was conceived.

Describing the report as a “snapshot of life” reflects the infancy of the programme and the current lack of availability of reportable measurements. It presents a glimpse of future potential, and to a degree concedes the superficiality of the components of  well-being that were selected, and their limited capacity to describe ‘life’.

Formal and informal cultural participation featured conspicuously in the 34,000 responses to the programme’s ‘What matters to you’ debate. The prevalence of various forms of cultural activity in the ONS’ March report ‘What we do’ substantiated their significance as contributors to  well-being, while the report’s confidence in DCMS’ ‘Taking Part’ statistics appeared to indicate the inclusion of the arts and culture in this domain. Yet, as reported in September (AP257, P8), the ONS subsequently revealed in July that the measures will not account for the impact of the arts and culture or other leisure activities on happiness and  well-being.

This also played out in the November report, which does not include data or discussion on how  well-being is influenced by the way people choose to spend their time. However, the report somewhat inconsistently quotes one of the many respondents: “I would hate for someone to be worrying about whether they will have something to eat or a roof over their head. Also doing other things including recreation activities improves your mental  well-being which in turn affects your general  well-being but you can only do those things if you are in a good financial position.”

For this participant,  well-being is explained in such a way that recreation activities are the most significant constituent of quality of life, after food and shelter, reaffirming the importance of this area to the debate. As the ONS quoted in March: “research into lived experience, work, leisure and enjoyment is central to our understanding of happiness and  well-being”. Given that the debate and previous report acknowledged the contribution of the arts and wider cultural activities to measuring lived experience, it seems here that culture’s value will contribute to the bigger picture. Furthermore, it concedes the importance of addressing financial inequalities that hinder access to activities – one of the debates in which public subsidy of the arts and culture has long been positively and negatively contested.

The onus is on the ONS to look at the bigger picture framed by public debate, rather than settling for a snapshot of descriptors that are easy to measure and legislate

Developing measures that better identify and relieve symptoms of poverty and ill-health are critical to the  well-being programme. However, if we are to understand how to facilitate as much happiness and  well-being as possible, the meaning of ‘ well-being’ must be protected from solely representing a technique for appraising efficiency and an abstract indicator of policy outcomes. Geoff Mulgan, Co-founder of Action for Happiness and Chief Executive of NESTA, recently commented: “Our political culture, as so often happens, is lagging well behind the cultures of everyday life.” Perhaps it is the disconnect between politics and everyday life that poses the biggest problem? January’s Bellagio report presents a six-month study of  well-being in development. One of its major observations was “the need for building greater interconnectedness between those forming policy and those affected by policy … and the gulf between governments and citizens”. Consequently, the onus is on the ONS to look at the bigger picture framed by public debate, rather than settling for a snapshot of descriptors that are easy to measure and legislate.

The ‘Life in the UK’ report acknowledges some necessary developments, particularly how the measures might identify sub-groups which would benefit from policy interventions, although it refrains from revealing that framing policy effectively may be decades away according to ‘the government’s happiness tsar’, Professor Lord Layard. A short-term goal is to “review and further refine domains and measures and the criteria used to select them”, but with no indication of when and how these reviews might commence. That there is no reference of a return to public debate suggests that the reviewing and refining process is likely to be a closed conversation. Thus future policy framing, appraisal, distribution of public funds and the picture painted of ‘progress’ is likely to continue to exclude voices from the debate that attested to the importance of lived experience, and time spent participating in the arts and cultural practices.

In a recent discussion on happiness and  well-being at the London School of Economics between Professors Paul Dolan and Daniel Kahneman, Dolan commented on how “remarkable it is that a lot of policy discussion is still not about time use”. He stated that happiness is the lived experience: “how you feel now”, rather than “how was it for you”, which relies on memory and often misrepresents the fact of lived experience. According to Dolan, in looking at happiness as the lived experience, we move away from thinking about a “kind of good fortune index”. Life satisfaction measures pick up how well someone thinks things are going, or have gone, referenced against their expectations. They are therefore not always reliable indicators of inequalities of  well-being and do not sufficiently represent happiness, outside a wider context of time use.

For Dolan and Kahneman, as leaders in ‘happiness studies’, its future lies in interrogating “happiness as a flow of experience over time”, rather than as ‘snapshot’ reflections on experience in relation to aspiration. That reports from the ONS have ceased analyses of how individuals freely choose to use their free time, and its contribution to  well-being, suggests that there is a growing disconnect between the  well-being indices and the nation that should be at their centre, rather than simply a subject for measurement.

The working title of the ONS’ November report ‘State of the nation’ was dropped for what seems a number of obviously negative connotations. That it aspired to declare the current state of the nation betrays ambitions that the report could assume certainties and conclusions unrealistic for a programme in its infancy. This may signify a discomfort with that which is not easily quantifiable and is uncertain, perhaps explaining the programme’s current reluctance to investigate what happiness and  well-being are as an unfolding journey for the individual. This parallels difficulties in representing quality of experience in cultural activities, both as recreation and the more cerebral connotations of cultural participation to reflect on other domains of life. The lack of willingness in Government bodies to interact with the lived experience is particularly familiar to the cultural sector, which has long struggled to communicate these qualities within prescribed measures which it often finds inappropriate.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan started measuring gross national happiness (GNH) in 1972 and is often quoted as the inspiration for various international measures. In a recent article its current Minister of Education, Loynpo Thakur S Powdyel, believes Bhutan’s mission to understand happiness has been misconstrued: "People always ask how can you possibly have a nation of happy people. But this is missing the point. GNH is an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society...”

It is worth noting that Bhutan’s GNH index includes day-to-day interactions with arts and cultural activities, believed to be implicit in a happy life. That the rest of the world is trying to emulate Bhutan’s progressive measures using advancements across economics, politics, philosophy and psychology, while misunderstanding the principles behind the index’s achievements, is testament to much of what is missing from the picture in the UK. The absence of everyday culture and formal arts participation from the ‘overview of  well-being’ as a ‘snapshot of life’ highlights the UK programme’s current inadequacies. Fundamentally, it overlooks why we are measuring  well-being. As a young boy from Bhutan, quoted in the same article as the minister, states, "We might lose our culture, and if you don't have that then how do you know who you are?"

Susan Oman is a doctoral student at the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), University of Manchester.


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