Saturday, April 22, 2006

What matters?

What gives us a sense of wellbeing? The results of some Australian research might surprise you.

A study was released last October which compared the wellbeing of Australians according to the electorate they live in. 23,000 Australians were interviewed for the survey which was a joint project of Deakin University and Australian Unity, a large insurance company.

In which electorates did people report the highest level of wellbeing? The decisive factor was not money. In fact, the electorate with the lowest taxable income, Wide Bay in Queensland, scored the highest level of personal wellbeing.

So what did count? The report highlighted three factors which, according to political orthodoxy, are not supposed to matter the way they do.

First, stable family formation was important. Electorates with fewer separated, divorced or never married people reported higher levels of personal wellbeing. According to the survey,

The low EDs [electoral districts] contain 11.6% fewer people who are married, almost double the population of people who have never married (14.8% vs 26.5%) and half the proportion of widows (10.0% vs 5.6%). This is important information since people who are married or widowed have higher SWB [subjective wellbeing] than other types of relationship status, and people who have never married, at least once they age beyond 26 years, have lower wellbeing.

and, on the same theme,

We also have uncovered factors that are associated with low personal wellbeing: Living with adult non-partners, being separated or divorced, and having never married.

We are often told that any kind of living arrangement can serve equally as family, but the survey results contradict this claim by connecting wellbeing to marital status.

Gender was also significant in influencing wellbeing. Electorates with a higher proportion of women ranked higher in the survey. Again, this result is not what you might expect. If being female makes you more likely to report a higher level of wellbeing it is harder to accept the feminist idea that women should be classed as an oppressed victim group.

The survey also connected electorates with high ethnic diversity to low personal wellbeing. The research did not, therefore, support the orthodox idea that we are enriched in our personal lives by multicultural diversity. Instead, the survey concluded that,

ethnic diversity is far higher within the low EDs. They have a significantly higher proportion of people who speak a language other than English and have a religion other than Christianity. While this might be expected if the low EDs simply represented enclaves of low paid and educated migrants, this is not the case. As has been seen, the high and low divisions do not differ in terms of income, rate of employment, or levels of education, except for the very small minority who did not go to school. Thus, the picture that emerges is that the low EDs are more ethnically diverse but not more socio-economically disadvantaged.

To put this the other way around, the survey is suggesting that it helps your sense of wellbeing if you live in an ethnically homogeneous area, less impacted by waves of diverse immigration.

So, if the research is valid governments need to rethink current approaches to family, gender and ethnicity, if they are to truly promote the wellbeing of those they are supposed to represent.

(Hat tip: reader Shane who directed me to the source material.)

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