Believe it or not, Britain is getting happier
The dominant economic narrative in the UK is a pretty gloomy one just now.
True, employment is at a record high. But, counter the whingers and whiners, zero hours contracts and low pay proliferate.
The political discourse is full of the struggles of the JAMs – the Just About Managing The public sector moans about its pay. During the election, Labour played ruthlessly on the fears and anxieties of the elderly about inheritance and the value of pensions.
All in all, the picture seems bleak. But a much more positive vision is given by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in its measure of well-being.
The Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme was established in November 2010 under David Cameron. It is not without its critics. But if we take it at face value, compared to a year ago the country is definitely happier.
As the ONS puts it: “the latest update provides a broadly positive picture of life in the UK, with the majority of indicators either improving or staying the same over the one year period”.
There seems to be a bit of a glitch. The ONS boasts of using no fewer than 43 separate indicators to measure well-being. But they go on to state, in the very same sentence, that of these 43 measures, “15 improved, 18 stayed the same and two deteriorated, compared with one year earlier”. Perhaps the relevant statistician here received his or her basic training at the Diane Abbott School of Arithmetic.
No matter, it could be that some of the series have simply not been updated at all. Certainly, many people might not be too concerned to learn that “on environmental sustainability, the proportion of waste from households that was recycled fell over a one-year period, while remaining unchanged over the three-year period”.
But compared to a year previously, on some key indicators, as a nation we were more satisfied with our jobs, felt our health was better, and enjoyed our leisure time more.
This does not fit readily with political discussion recently in the mainstream media.
One possible reason is that many of the ONS measures rely on conventional survey techniques. These can take some time to carry out. So the ONS only release new data every six months, and the latest one was in April. The indicators could just be out of date.
However, a very similar story is told by a real-time analysis of Twitter data, which I have been carrying out with my UCL colleague Rickard Nyman since June 2016 (admittedly just for the London area).
We use advanced machine learning algorithms which essentially measure the sentiment level of a tweet as a whole, rather than relying on the now obsolete approach of looking for specific positive and negative words.
Sentiment in London started to rise quite sharply last autumn, dipped down slightly in April and May, but is now back up again.
Many conventional economic statistics are not really designed for the modern economy. So, despite, all its faults, the ONS well-being measure may be a step in the right direction, and regardless of what the media tells you, Britain may indeed be getting happier.