Reflections on 21st century wellbeing

Marcia Brophy, Wellbeing and Resilience Programme Leader, The Young Foundation

Why is wellbeing not only important for ourselves but also for our collective capacity to see us through hard times? Do we know how to improve our own wellbeing? Should we teach children how to be happy and increase their wellbeing? Is there a role for local government in improving our wellbeing?

The recent recession may have diminished interest in wellbeing, which could have been seen as a luxury for times of plenty. Instead it has generated a sharper focus on what public spending does to influence wellbeing, how to make people resilient and how to mitigate the factors that harm wellbeing, both for individuals and for communities.

Most people in Britain live good lives, enjoy relative good health and believe they live in strong and supportive families and communities - all factors associated with high wellbeing. When they face setbacks, most people bounce back, showing signs of resilience. But many people are left behind. Resilience and wellbeing matter, and can and should be influenced, and local authorities can play a key role in this influence.

The Local Wellbeing Project - a unique partnership between the Young Foundation, Professor Lord Richard Layard at London School of Economics (LSE), Local Government (LG) Improvement and Development (formerly the IDeA), and three leading local authorities: Hertfordshire County Council, Manchester City Council, and South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council - has demonstrated that wellbeing can enthusiastically and usefully be adopted as a strategic aim at the local level. These provide a very different way of thinking about our changing needs and how to address them, compared to traditional approaches to understanding local need and service provision.

The aspect of the wellbeing agenda that galvanises energies and interests most effectively across various stakeholders is emotional resilience. The work of the Local Wellbeing Project showed how boosting individual wellbeing and resilience can help improve educational attainment and behaviour in schools. It also showed how building social networks can increase wellbeing at the local level to underpin community engagement. In addition, it shows how a wellbeing focus can improve the impact of parenting programmes and how wellbeing can help older people live independently in the community for longer - all important factors in people's lives.

And improving wellbeing and resilience can be achieved through adapting mainstream services rather than expensive new initiatives - an all important consideration given the current economic climate. But further work is needed to highlight other linkages between existing service delivery and wellbeing ‘wins'. For example, how we can create flourishing and resilient workforces? We know that wellbeing is often lowest in middle age, yet this is a time when people are least likely to use public services, and make up a large part of our workforce. Another key question is what is the impact of the recession on wellbeing and how do we support communities hard hit by the economic downturn?

There is no straight forward menu of how to improve wellbeing and resilience, but it is important to ask how, during a period of recession and recovery, we can all play our part. The wellbeing agenda highlights how local government can create the conditions in which wellbeing is more likely to increase.

Wellbeing and resilience - The Young Foundation

25 November 2010

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