Thursday, August 4, 2011

Do all well-being indicators tell similar stories at a regional level?

I have previously noted that there is a tendency for many different well-being indicators to tell similar stories in international comparisons. The most obvious reason for this is that well-being is related to socio-economic circumstances. People who live in countries with relatively high average incomes could be expected to have good housing, better health outcomes, greater life satisfaction etc.

It would seem reasonable to expect a similar pattern at a regional level within countries. Regions that have a high rating on an indicator, such as subjective well-being, might also be expected to have a fairly high rating on a range of factors that are known to be related to well-being.

There is an excellent facility in Victoria (Australia) to test whether this is the case. The site, known as Community Indicators Victoria, enables visitors to look at relationships between a large number of variables across local government areas (LGAs). I used the double data map facility to examine the relationship between subjective well-being (SWB) and a range of variables that I thought might reasonably be expected to be correlated with SWB. The SWB measure used is the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index combines satisfaction with life as a whole and satisfaction with various domains of life (standard of living, health, achievements in life, community connection, personal relationships, safety and future security).

The relationship with some relevant variables was strongly positive, as I had expected. The LGAs with higher average SWB also tend to have higher ratings in terms of: satisfaction with being part of the community, social support (ability to get help from friends), citizen engagement (e.g. attending town meetings, writing to politicians), safety (e.g. feeling safe walking in the local area at night) and volunteering.

However, the relationship with some other relevant variables was negative. These included household income (Census data), food security, satisfaction with work-life balance and acceptance of diverse cultures.

The explanation seems to lie mainly in differences between rural LGAs and those in Melbourne or close to it. The LGAs with highest average SWB tend to be rural. There seems to be an association between high average SWB and the relatively strong community networks in the rural LGAs. The variables for which a negative relationship was observed, such as household income, tend to have higher values in Melbourne and in LGAs close to Melbourne.

When I was growing up in country Victoria the people where I lived used to say that Melbourne might be a nice place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there. They were smiling but they weren't joking. People who live in rural area seem to be highly satisfied with their lifestyles. Perhaps an ideal lifestyle can only be obtained by earning a big-city income and living in the country.

A report prepared a few years ago by Bob Cummins et al, looking at SWB by statistical sub-division (SSD) over Australia as a whole, indicates that the SSDs with the highest levels of subjective wellbeing were all rural and those with the lowest subjective wellbeing were all inner-city. The authors noted that subjective wellbeing is generally lower in cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants and that the most important domain driving this is connection to community.


Anonymous said...

Sadly the numbers don't look too good for the new urbanism (of which I'm a fan), but to the charge that "Perhaps an ideal lifestyle can only be obtained by earning a big-city income and living in the country"--perhaps the autosprawl that supports that supposedly best-of-both-worlds lifestyle is an unaccounted-for externality?

Winton Bates said...

My comment about the best-of-both worlds was flippant. It is a lifesyle that only a few people could enjoy with known technology.

Most of us have to make compromises. I am not sure what the numbers mean for the new urbanism. At its best, urban living can be pretty good.

There are also the people, like myself, moving to coastal towns to get a better lifestyle. It might be interesting to see how the life satisfaction data lines up with patterns of population movement over the last decade or so.

Shona said...

Interesting as always, but not as pointy as your previous articles. It has me wondering what this will be a launch pad for!

I wonder how this data corrolates with suicide rates.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment, Shona. I suppose the point is that the well-being story is a bit more complex than I had thought - the link between wealth and life satisfaction is not as strong at a regional level as at a national level.
I suppose the more general point is that we need to be careful not to rush to judgement about the choices people make between lifestyle and income. Some people accept lower incomes to enjoy what they consider to be a better lifestyle and some make lifestyle sacrifices while they accumulate wealth that they plan to enjoy later. In my view most people are fairly sane when it comes to making such choices.
I don't know the answer to your question about suicide rates. There has certainly been a lot of media focus on suicide by farmers - a lot of it to make them aware that there is help available and no shame in seeking help. I imagine that a person who is the 3rd or 4th generation running any business would feel under a lot of pressure if it fails - even if they know there are a lot of other people in the same boat.

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