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Does well-being mean well funded?

26 July 2012

By Sarah Cheshire, Policy & Learning Advisor

To much discussion, the Office for National Statistics published their well-being domains and measures and first annual survey of well-being across the UK on Tuesday. The focus on measuring the country’s well-being has never been more prominent.

If the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) is all about supporting communities and people most in need then, like other funders, should we also be interested in the impact our funding has on well-being? 

Launched in 2007, our Well-being funding programme is investing £160 million of Lottery money into projects across England aimed at improving people’s mental health, increasing their levels of physical activity and encouraging them to eat more healthily. 

Projects range from befriending schemes to exercise classes, gardening, cycling and cooking classes – a host of things for local people of all ages. But how can we tell if these projects are actually working? How do we measure someone’s ‘well-being’?

When BIG first looked to do this, we were struck by the lack of reliable measurement tools available that were comprehensive enough to tell us what we wanted to know. Traditional objective measures of economic security and health couldn’t tell us the whole story of an individual’s well-being. For example, if someone has broadly good health but little confidence, their quality of life will be seriously diminished.

So, BIG asked nef (new economics foundation) to design some subjective measures of well-being.  The tools they developed gave project participants the ability to ‘self-report’ on things such as their physical activity levels, the extent to which they feel energised or lonely, and whether they feel like they belong to a community. By asking these questions at the start and end of a project and three months later, we can reliably track the change in well-being over time and determine how these different factors relate to each other.

It is one of the first times that data of this kind has been collected so comprehensively, over time, at a national level and it’s enabling us to learn a lot. The five year evaluation is being conducted by CLES Consulting and having surveyed over 2,000 people in the first 18 months the results show:

  • Projects are helping to improve people’s mental health. 10 per cent fewer people aged over 65 reported significant depressive symptoms.
  • People’s life satisfaction scores increased substantially – by half a point on a 10-point scale. Data from the 2004 European Social Survey suggests a person’s life satisfaction would only rise by 0.2 if a person’s income were to double.
  • People are doing more exercise and are enjoying it more.
  • More project beneficiaries now have healthier diets and make better food choices overall.
  • Being involved in projects as volunteers or as beneficiaries improved people’s well-being generally, and gave them increased confidence. They enjoyed meeting new people and were less socially isolated, particularly older and young people.

It is encouraging to see that our results, which show an increase in life satisfaction amongst participants, correspond with the findings published by ONS. Our next set of results will be published in September 2012, which will provide us with a deeper understanding of the impact on people’s well-being and what kind of activities work best for different groups of people.

There are challenges for funders however, in that measuring subjective well-being is a relatively new area and understanding how to do it is still being developed. BIG is one of the first funders in this area who has collected this kind of data, over time, so comprehensively at a national level.

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