In 2008, The New Economics Foundation (nef) was commissioned by the UK Government’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Well-being to review the inter-disciplinary work of over 400 scientists from across the world. The aim was to identify a set of evidence-based actions to improve well-being, which individuals would be encouraged to build into their daily lives.
As an illustration of how Government action can be explicitly directed towards improving well-being, this page briefly sets out the five evidence-based ways to well-being and the sorts of policy interventions which could help to enable them.
Connect with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the corner of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
Go for a walk or a run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.
Exercise has been shown to increase mood and has been used successfully to lower rates of depression and anxiety. Being active also develops the motor skills of children and protects against cognitive decline in the elderly. Yet for the first time in history more of the world’s population live in urban than non-urban environments. Through urban design and transport policy, governments influence the way we navigate through our neighbourhoods and towns. To improve our well-being, policies could support more green space to encourage exercise and play and prioritise cycling and walking over car use.
Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the usual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
In the US, research has shown that practicing awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings can improve both the knowledge we have about ourselves and our well-being for several years. But the twenty-first century’s never-ending flow of messages from companies advertising products and services leaves little opportunity to savour or reflect on our experiences. Policy that incorporates emotional awareness training and media education into universal education provision may better equip individuals to navigate their way through the information super-highway with their well-being intact; regulation to create advertising-free spaces could further improve well-being outcomes.
Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.
Learning encourages social interaction and increases self-esteem and feelings of competency. Behaviour directed by personal goals to achieve something new has been shown to increase reported life satisfaction. While there is often a much greater policy emphasis on learning in the early years of life, psychological research suggests it is a critical aspect of day-to-day living for all age groups. Therefore, policies that encourage learning, even in the elderly, will enable individuals to develop new skills, strengthen social networks and feel more able to deal with life’s challenges.
Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
Studies in neuroscience have shown that cooperative behaviour activates reward areas of the brain, suggesting we are hard wired to enjoy helping one another. Individuals actively engaged in their communities report higher well-being and their help and gestures have knock-on effects for others. But it is not simply about a one-way transaction of giving. Research by nef shows that building reciprocity and mutual exchange – through giving and receiving – is the simplest and most fundamental way of building trust between people and creating positive social relationships and resilient communities. Governments can choose to invest more in ‘the core economy’: the family, neighbourhood and community which, together, act as the operating system of society. , Policies that provide accessible, enjoyable and rewarding ways of participation and exchange will enable more individuals to take part in social and political life.