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21 June 2013

Culture helps measure UK's well-being

von Philharmonie Luxemburg

Well-being is admittedly a concept that is hard to define. But in a world that goes through one economic crisis after another, more and more states try to understand what makes people satisfied with their lives knowing that «money can’t buy happiness.» This is why UK’s Office for National Statistics launched its Measuring National Well-being programme in 2010. Last May ONS announced that arts and culture had been added to its «accepted and trusted measures of the well-being of the nation».

This idea of defining well-being has gained prominence over the past few years. The research culminated in 2012 when the United Nations held a conference on happiness. But the various national and international organisations haven’t selected the same criteria and culture seems to be very rarely taken into account. The OECD’s Better Life Index reflects on 11 criteria «identified as essential, in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life» but none of them relates to arts or culture or sports. Just a few weeks ago Germany created its own well-being indicator but it revolves around social criteria, ecology and of course economy. It even includes the sacrosanct GDP.

In this context the UK’s move to include arts in its index is all the more remarkable. Initially arts and culture were not part of the set of measures. But ONS encourages feedback and «the most commonly requested additions during the consultation were measures to reflect arts, culture and sport. ONS had previously excluded these measures due to lack of UK data for these topics. However, ONS have been convinced by the weight of evidence in favour of including measures to reflect these areas.» As a result, they decided to monitor «the percentage of people who have engaged with, or participated in, arts or cultural activities at least three times in the last year.» This percentage was 83,9% in 2011/12.

John Helliwell, member of Canada's National Statistics Council, thinks that with this programme «the UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report [published in 2009 by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress in France set up by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy]: systematically measuring subjective well-being as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices.»

Currently culture is one of the fields that get their budgets cut first when a country is in dire need of money. Call us naïve and romantic but proving that it plays such an important role in the life of (almost) every citizen may make a government think twice before slashing the budget of a theatre or a library. This is what «using these data to inform policy choices» means, right? And 83,9% is quite a figure, isn't it? But let's come down to earth. We all know that GDP's will continue to rule the world. But at least British cultural institutions now know how much they matter to their listeners, spectators and visitors and that they influence these people's well-being. It’s got to be some sort of consolation.


-- Julie