“Over the pandemic Australians’ average subjective wellbeing has barely deviated from remarkably stable levels maintained over 20 years.”
- The latest research shows that while wellbeing is, on average, quite high, it won’t get any better by just continuing along the same path.
- Because not everyone has equal access to key resources, inequities drive very different patterns of wellbeing in disadvantaged groups.
- These results show why it is important to look past headline figures to judge whether policies and programs are contributing to wellbeing and societal progress.
Since 2001 our research group has asked 2,000 Australians every year how they’re doing. Are they satisfied with their standard of living, their relationships, purpose in life, community connectedness, safety, health and future security?
We’ve asked them through good times and bad, through wars and global financial downturns, fires and floods. And now through years of pandemic—the worst economic crisis in a generation, and the worst health crisis in a century
Using an internationally regarded methodology, we combine their subjective ratings across seven life areas into a single score out of 100. These results form the basis of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, a collaborative partnership between Deakin University and mutual company Australian Unity.
Our latest results may surprise you. Over the pandemic Australians’ average subjective wellbeing has barely deviated from remarkably stable levels maintained over 20 years.
That doesn’t make for an exciting graph. But it is significant.
It shows that while wellbeing is, on average, quite high, it won’t get any better by just continuing along the same path.
This is where our survey gets more interesting. Beneath the headline result is a more pronounced story—of notable differences in people’s subjective wellbeing based on their circumstances and life experience.
In these differences lie important lessons about the need to look beyond averages as a measure of a nation.
Why is average wellbeing so stable?
First, though, it’s worth understanding why the national average score is relatively high, and so stable. This pattern is consistent with life satisfaction scores across most OECD countries.
It reflects both biological and situational factors.
At the biological level it is thought that humans have evolved to maintain a relatively optimistic and happy mood. This is controlled by homeostatic mechanisms like those that maintain an optimal body temperature.
But like body temperature, wellbeing can be undermined by situational factors. In particular, it declines without sufficient levels of three key resources: enough money, connection with others, and a sense of purpose.
Because not everyone has equal access to these resources, inequities drive very different patterns of wellbeing in disadvantaged groups.
Wellbeing by living arrangements
Our second graph shows subjective wellbeing levels by living arrangements. These are perhaps our most predictable results. Those living alone, in share houses and single parents have the lowest scores overall. But there are also less intuitive results, with the wellbeing of those living alone and single parents increasing significantly in 2020.
Perhaps because these groups are more likely to be socially isolated, the effects of lockdowns had less impact. But the more obvious reason is likely to do with income, as our next graphs show.
Wellbeing by occupation
Year in, year out, certain groups show lower levels of subjective wellbeing. Most evident are those who are unemployed. But in 2020 this group reported considerably better wellbeing—nine percentage points higher than 2019.
There are three possible explanations. First, the composition of the unemployed cohort changed due to pandemic-related job losses. Second, the stigma of being unemployed was reduced.
The third reason, however, seems most obvious. In 2020 the JobSeeker payment was doubled from $550 to $1,100 a fortnight. For those struggling to even pay for necessities such as rent and food, this would have been a huge relief.
However, in 2021, the JobSeeker payment was cut back to about $620 a fortnight. At the same time wellbeing for those who were unemployed fell. To a level lower than in 2019 in fact.
This is consistent with economic theory of loss aversion—that people feel losses more deeply than gains in income.
Losing really hurts
Our next graph demonstrates this loss-aversion effect. Those who lost income during the pandemic reported lower wellbeing than the national average. But those whose household income increased during the pandemic reported wellbeing levels identical to those whose income remained the same.
Marginal diminishing gains
Our final graph shows wellbeing levels by income. The largest wellbeing increases were in the lowest-income households in 2020. Wellbeing for those on the highest incomes didn’t change.
Thus, governments allocating more money to people who already have their financial needs met is unlikely to improve subjective wellbeing. On the other hand, lifting people out of poverty is likely to make a big difference to their wellbeing.
The importance of measuring wellbeing
These results show why it is important to look past headline figures, such as GDP or national averages, to judge whether policies and programs are actually contributing to wellbeing and societal progress.
This is why countries such as New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, Iceland and Finland are now incorporating wellbeing measures into their budgets and policy frameworks. Like the OECD, these countries have recognised that improving the wellbeing of society, particularly of disadvantaged groups, is a core marker of societal progress.
We’d like to see Australia do the same.
Authors: Kate Lycett, NHMRC Early Career Fellow, Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development, Deakin University; Craig Olsson, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow; Director, Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development., Deakin University; Delyse Hutchinson, Clinical Psychologist and NHMRC Leadership Fellow, Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development, Deakin University; Mallery Crowe, Partnership Project Coordinator, Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development, Deakin University; Matthew Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, Professor, Psychology, Deakin University; Robert Cummins, Professor emeritus, Deakin University; Sarah Khor, Research Fellow and Psychologist, Deakin University, and Tanja Capic, PhD candidate, Psychology, Deakin University
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.