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Communities are the key to happiness

Posted on 20 March 2018

A wise old man told me one time
Happiness is a frame of mind
When you go to measuring my success
Don't count my money count my happiness

Google doesn’t throw up many connections between Ken Dodd and the United Nations but in the week of the Knotty Ash comedian’s passing the 'UN World Happiness Report' told us that this year it’s Finland that has more than its share of the stuff. 

'I got no silver and I got no gold, just a whole lot of happiness in my soul' sang Ken, but there the comparisons break down as income levels are certainly seen as part of the equation according to the report’s publishers, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, alongside other factors including life expectancy, social support and more intangible perception measures such as freedom, trust, and generosity.

The Nordic countries as a whole dominate the rankings – as they have for a number of years – and the only big mover of note is the US, which continues to plummet from its once lofty position.  If this were the Premiership the owners would definitely be thinking about picking up the phone to Sam Allardyce in an attempt to avoid a drop into the lower reaches. "Big Sam, it’s Uncle Sam here …".

This year’s happiness report has a particular focus on the experiences and perceptions of immigrants.  The big picture view is that, as people move around the globe, their happiness levels converge with the wider population – if you migrate to a happier country you end up happier and vice versa.  This is, of course, common sense and to some extent could be seen as the underlying cause of global migration patterns.  But is this global data and this megatrend analysis any use to us in determining our own social policy responses.  Well, maybe.

Two other documents published recently are the Government’s green paper on Integrated Communities and a brief summary of the evidence base around the social determinants of wellbeing by the Health Foundation.  The latter posits a definition of a healthy person as someone with the opportunity for meaningful work, secure housing, stable relationships, high self-esteem and healthy behaviours. The former contains a series of measures and proposals aimed at ensuring this level of wellbeing is available to all people in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society.

Pride of place 

Both reference the importance of place and community in helping us feel connected and keeping us well, and happy.  According to the Health Foundation 'health is influenced by how surroundings make people feel and the opportunities they provide' while 'people who are more socially connected to family, friends or their community are happier and live longer, healthier lives'. The Government’s vision for an integrated society praises 'the work volunteers do in communities up and down the country to organise and deliver community activities which help bring people together from different backgrounds to address loneliness, share experiences, and to develop meaningful and lasting relationships'.

We know this from direct experience. Groundwork’s Cultivating Communities project used gardening and green space to support integration amongst third country nationals in South East London while in the East of England a similar methodology is being used to help Syrian refugees engage in voluntary activity as a way of boosting their employment prospects – seen as key both to wellbeing and successful integration.

Learning from both programmes shows that what makes the difference is the ability to deploy expert community workers with the time and expertise needed to build trust, understand barriers and design tailored interventions that are fun and accessible but purposeful. Surveys of participants showed that many were surprised that such provision was available 'for people in their position' and evaluation points to the success of interventions lying in the combination of individual benefit (in language skills, job search support) and the more indefinable 'goodwill' generated from engaging in projects benefiting the wider community.

As we think about how to address the big issues of integration and wellbeing it’s right that we focus on systemic issues such as education, housing and the labour market but we mustn’t forget that people’s attitudes and behaviours are just as likely to be influenced by personal encounters and one-to-one relationships, and we need to invest in these.  Happiness can be charted and analysed globally but only experienced and shared by individuals.

Now, where did I put my tickling stick?

Post by Graham Duxbury, CEO