Our sense of well-being has been on the decline for years – here’s how to reverse it



People’s sense of well-being plunged in the pandemic’s first year, according to new data released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). As the blocks went into effect and people got scared of the future, their life satisfaction fell by 4% on average, while their anxiety increased by 9%. People also became less happy and were more likely to think the things they did in life were not worth it.

Lockdown restrictions on social and leisure activities, social distancing practices in stores and public spaces, and the increase in working from home have meant that for many people, increased isolation has been inevitable and severe.

These results were based on surveys of some 320,000 people across the UK and there were inevitable variations between different regions. For example, the West Midlands and North West England saw the largest increases in anxiety, while the largest declines in life satisfaction were recorded in Northern Ireland, Yorkshire and the Humber.

Well-being measured by the ONS

Office of National Statistics

But while those falls may be pretty much what you would expect in an international pandemic, it’s important to point out that people’s well-being had already been on the decline for a few years. Life satisfaction, happiness and a feeling that things are worth it were all at their best in 2018-19 according to the ONS, while anxiety levels have been increasing since 2014-15.

This is echoed by a recent report from Carnegie UK, which also relied on statistics from the ONS to create an internal metric known as Gross Household Welfare or GDWe. ONS data and the Carnegie UK report reflect a growing recognition by national and international bodies that you cannot monitor people’s well-being by relying on gross domestic product (GDP).

Based on ten different dimensions of well-being, this report estimated that GDWe had actually declined in the four years leading up to the pandemic – all the years that UK GDP was growing. This decline in well-being was due to the fact that people in the UK have experienced a decline in their mental health due to loneliness and isolation, which perhaps echoes the new findings from the ‘ONS Regarding Anxiety.

Another interesting observation from the Carnegie Report was that the biggest declines in 2019-20 in England – before the damage caused by the pandemic – were in fact for “the economy” and “governance”.

The economic index seeks to represent macroeconomic indicators such as income, public debt and inflation, while that of governance is based on voter turnout and confidence in government. It is not surprising that both indices have declined over the period, given the consequences of Brexit.

Woman with baby watching a caravan
One of the main drivers of a feeling of well-being is economic hardship.
Johann Walter Bantz, CC BY-SA

The first economic effects of the pandemic are probably taken into account in the new figures from the ONS. But since the pandemic has caused an increase in public debt that will take years to shrink, as well as a series of other problems such as rising prices and product shortages, we can probably expect that economic concerns continue to drive down welfare data for years. .

Confidence in the government will likely also have influenced the new data from the ONS. He is likely to have followed the ups and downs of COVID and the public reactions to associated policy responses. In the first year of the pandemic, government decision-making regarding the first and second lockdowns was certainly seen as too slow.

Mental Health

The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) has been publishing a well-being index for a decade and also incorporates well-being into a large part of its economic analyzes. In its recent analysis of the consequences of COVID and country responses, the OECD found that people’s mental health was deteriorating to an unprecedented degree. He attributed this to financial insecurity, unemployment and fear, as well as a reduction in the type of activities that keep people healthy. These include social connections, access to physical activity, health services and daily routine.

As a result, many countries have sought to scale up mental health services while trying to protect people’s jobs and incomes during the pandemic – even as mental health programs in schools and workplaces have been disrupted and that the implications of long-term remote working are yet to be fully understood.

It is not only high-income countries that have recognized such problems, as shown by the World Bank’s collaboration in this area with a range of countries in Africa and Asia. One of the themes emerging from all major international organizations is the need for an integrated, economy-wide approach to mental health protection – and the ONS ‘new findings on the rise of anxiety provide further justification.

Calls to rebuild and level up are now familiar and require concrete actions supported by new ways of thinking. Mental health and well-being deserve to be at the forefront, even if it calls for a reassessment of priorities at work and at home.



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