Wellbeing: What’s the evidence? (Part 1)

16 September 2018

Author: Dr Caroline Creaby, Sandringham Research School Director

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the national researchED conference in London.  As ever, the programme was packed full of sessions covering topics from curriculum to behaviour, the Pupil Premium to teacher retention.  In my session, I decided to talk about wellbeing; a topic close to my heart and yet one I haven’t previously written or spoken about.  I chose this topic because despite the growing frequency with which we hear the term ‘wellbeing’ in schools, the evidence is rarely discussed or debated in the same way it is for other school themes.  Here I summarise some key ideas from my talk and in part two of this blog I will go on to suggest some implications for schools.

Since the early noughties, there has been a concerted effort by the UK government to consider wellbeing in the UK as a whole.  For too long, at the national level, we have relied upon growth in national income (as measured by Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product) as the sole indicator of economic progress and by implication national well-being.  Gross National Product accounts for the total value of output produced by an economy over a year and it is the year-on-year growth of this figure that has become the holy grail for politicians of all mainstream parties. As far back as 1937, the architect of this measure, economics professor Simon Kuznets, raised concerns about GNP being relied on too heavily; GNP didn’t give a complete picture of economy nor would a rise in GNP necessarily mean that the people would be better off.  This concern was most famously expressed by Robert F Kennedy in his speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:

Their concerns, despite being so well articulated, fell on deaf ears until recently.  Since 2010, the UK now measures wellbeing routinely through the Office of National Statistics.  In addition to this, work commenced on understanding the factors that can positively influence our personal wellbeing (David Halpern provides a  comprehensive account of this work in his book Inside the Nudge Unit). Part of our wellbeing is seemingly heritable but part of it is determined by our circumstances and behaviours (for more on this, see Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis).  It is these behaviours that the government was keen to identify and articulate.

The New Economics Foundation were tasked with developing a set of evidence-based actions to improve personal well-being equivalent of the healthy eating adage ‘five fruit and vegetables a day’.  Their five ways to wellbeing are set out below and you can read about them in more detail here:

  • Connect – With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
  • Be active – Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.
  • Take notice – Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. 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.
  • Keep learning – 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.
  • Give – 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.

These may be familiar to readers as the five ways to wellbeing have since been adopted by the NHS in their five steps to well being, replacing ‘notice’ with ‘be mindful’.

It’s worth flagging that NEF recognised that the evidence base is growing but not complete.  Also, there is little epidemiological or longitudinal evidence.  As with all research evidence, we therefore need to be cautious about the conclusions we draw.

In my next blog, I will explore the research evidence that lies behind these five recommendations, some of which is less ‘obvious’ than one might expect. I will then  go on to consider the implications of the national well-being agenda for schools, and suggest ways in which we can contribute in a concrete way to the vital work of improving the well-being of both the school community and the broader communities we serve.



Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C. & Thompson, S (2008). Five ways to wellbeing. London: New Economics Foundation.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. London: Random House.

Halpern, D. (2015). Inside the Nudge Unit. London: WH Allen.

Posted on 16 September 2018
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