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Map of the Week: Trust and Belonging

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Mark Easton | 08:55 UK time, Monday, 26 January 2009

Why are levels of "trust and belonging" among British under-50s the lowest in Europe?

This for me is the most alarming question for the UK emerging from the "National Accounts of Well-Being" compiled by the New Economics Foundation think tank from data in the 2006-07 European Social Survey (ESS).

Trust is the glue which holds society together, so evidence that the UK has the poorest "trust and belonging" levels for every age bracket from 15 to 50 is deeply disturbing.

The ESS tries to measure trust and belonging by comparing answers to questions such as these:
 • Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?
 • Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be fair?
 • Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful or that they are mostly looking out for themselves?

This map compares "trust and belonging" scores in 22 European nations for residents aged between 15 and 24. Indicators are designed so that they are measured on 0-10 scales, calibrated so that 5 always represents the average score across Europe.
[Source: National Accounts of Well-being / nef]

The map looks at under-25s, but it is the same depressing story for ages 25-34 and 35-49. If it weren't for some reasonably healthy scores among the over-50s, the UK would drop below Bulgaria and Slovakia as the least trusting of all the European nations surveyed.

The researchers suggest that our low "trust and belonging" score may be "the result of the development of a highly individualistic culture in the UK". Basically, the suggestion is that we are in danger of becoming the most selfish nation in Europe.

If the research is robust and the conclusion sound, then this is one of the most troubling findings about my homeland that I have ever read.

Looking at overall wellbeing, the UK comes only 13th out of 22 nations. This is based on a measure of both personal and social wellbeing - in effect, indicators of individual and community happiness.

An explanation of how they are calculated can be found here, along with a host of other information and a chance to measure your own wellbeing.

Among the factors which emerge as having a big negative impact on a country's wellbeing score are a general fear of crime and a lack of trust in institutions. Also, the more time its population spends watching TV, the more unhappy a country appears to be.

One can see why Britain might struggle.

What about GDP? Well, there appears to be a correlation between income and personal wellbeing, but the nef report includes the latest instalment in the argument - does economic growth make a country happier?

Richard Easterlin, Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California is the man behind the so-called "Easterlin paradox" which sparked the debate back in 1974.

His work concluded that richer people at any given point in time may be happier, but as we all get richer, we don't all get happier.

Easterlin attributes this apparent paradox to the importance of relative income to wellbeing. Once a certain absolute level of income is reached, gains in wellbeing are only due to having higher income relative to other people, not simply from having higher income per se.

In other words, just because a country is richer does not mean it is necessarily happier.

Since the paradox was published, there has been lots of other academic work questioning the findings - but now Easterlin has responded to his critics with some new analysis.

Reviewing evidence from 36 countries, he argues again that "there is no significant relation between the rate of economic growth and the change in life satisfaction".

His critics, he says, have mistaken a short-term association for "the long-term relationship".

The argument will go on, but for the UK there is a clear challenge - to rebuild the trust and sense of belonging that will be vital for a happy and contented society in the years ahead.


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