Well-being: In search of a good life, by Beverley A. Searle

Policy Press, 2008, ix + 198 pp, hbk 1 86134 887 6, £65

In this thorough and very readable book Beverley Searle employs extensive panel survey data to study people’s subjective well-being and the economic and material contexts of their lives. A complex picture emerges. As we would expect, someone’s health influences their subjective well-being; interestingly, people over 55 tend to report higher subjective well-being than those under 55; and having and changing social relationships can affect subjective well-being in a variety of ways.

An important finding is that objective wealth and income measurements do not correlate simply with subjective well-being. An improvement in one’s financial situation might result in a brief increase in subjective well-being, but the effect will soon wear off. (If our incomes rise then we habituate ourselves to new life circumstances and these might or might not improve our subjective well-being.) What does seem to be significant is subjective wealth, i.e., how we see our wealth in relation to the wealth of those around us. The high subjective well-being experienced by men in social class III (manual) is a surprising and interesting finding. A possible reason is that men in this social class are more accepting of their social and economic circumstances than are men in so-called higher social classes, and that there is something inherently satisfying about the social and economic circumstances of skilled manual workers who work within a set of rules without exercising significant authority within the organisations for which they work.

The situation is of course complicated by the facts that employment status and type of employment influence subjective well-being and that they have a complex relationship with income and wealth.

The author quite rightly calls for more research on inequality and its effects, particularly because ‘feelings of exclusion and subjective deprivation operate at all levels of affluence’ (p.112). This means that ‘a social thesis of well-being’ (p.113) might be the way forward: a theory in which ‘the “subjective” element of well-being is determined as much by social and political systems and how they interact as by individual effort and striving’ (p.113).

In the light of this suggestion, Searle addresses housing, education, and employment. In relation to employment she identifies secure employment as fostering subjective well-being, and the UK’s long hours culture as being detrimental to it; and she recommends a Citizen’s Income as a means of rebalancing employment with the rest of life and as a way of recognising the value of voluntary activity (p.124).

This is a most useful book. It contains thorough treatments of methodology, innovative and clear representations of results, and intelligent discussion. (It’s a pity that the index is somewhat skimpy.)

The final paragraph sums up the message:

The hierarchical structure embedded in an economic idea of well-being is unable to embrace the rediscovery of the social welfare approach that is being adopted in some sectors of society … Subjective well-being is not an individual but a collective experience – as such, while everyone should have the right to experience high levels of well-being there should also be a shared, collective responsibility for the well-being of others. … The quest, then, may not be to raise happiness levels but to seek a more sustainable emotion – that of contentment, (p.129)