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What predicts our level of well-being?

Author: Sally McManus
Institution: NatCen Social Research
Type of case study: Research

About the research

What makes us feel happy and fulfilled? For a long time social researchers and policymakers have been focused on studying and improving the negative aspects of life, rather than concentrating on its positive attributes. This report, commissioned by the Department of Health, explores what factors predict a level of positive well-being in people. Apart from being a positive end in itself, a high level of well-being has been found to foretell a longer life and a life without disability.

This research focuses on factors that are open to public policy intervention. Genetic predispositions and early childhood experiences are known to impact well-being in later life. However, it is important for policymakers to know what other factors need priority now so that the well-being of people will be improved throughout their lives.

The main findings of the study are:

  • Levels of well-being vary with age, dropping significantly during the mid-teenage years, at midlife, and again among the oldest years. Older women in this context represent a priority group, with very low levels of well-being. The different life circumstances people face to different ages are the main reason behind this well-being variation across the life course.
  • Predictors of well-being can differ between groups. For example, being a carer is more strongly linked with low well-being among working-age adults than it is among older people, and men’s well-being is more affected by employment status than women’s. However, many predictors of well-being remain consistent across the life course and are the same for both men and women.
  • Social relationships are key and this is evident in two ways. Firstly, people with higher well-being have more positive relationships, for example they experience less shouting and bullying, eat meals together and feel supported. Secondly, people with higher well-being tend to have parents, partners, and children who also have a high level of well-being.
  • The environment plays a role. A higher level of well-being is linked with positive neighbourhood social capital, living in a more affluent area, and having a well-maintained home. With relevance for the fuel poverty agenda, cold homes were strongly linked with lower well-being. Similarly, a stressful occupation and a troublesome school environment both predicted lower well-being.
  • Well-being is a central aspect of public health. People reporting good health are also more likely to have a high level of well-being, and this is important for public health. Some health behaviours are also closely linked with well-being. For example, the use of drugs and excessive gaming predict lower well-being among children. Eating more fruit and vegetables and not smoking predict higher well-being among adults.


A series of multiple linear regressions were carried out using data from the following studies: the Millennium Cohort Study on seven-year-olds, the Understanding Society Youth Cohort on 10- to 15- year-olds, the Understanding Society Adult Cohort to look across the life course, and the Health Survey for England to look at predictors of well-being separately for men and women.

Wide arrays of factors – spanning many aspects of life – were tested as potential predictors of subjective well-being. Subjective well-being analysis is sensitive to the measures of well-being used. Validated measures of subjective well-being have only recently been included in surveys, so the opportunity to carry out longitudinal analysis is just emerging now.


The research findings were published in the following research report:

Chanfreau, J., Lloyd, C., Byron, C., Roberts, C., Craig, R., De Feo, D., McManus, S. (2013) Predicting well-being, research report, NatCen Social Research, London. Retrieved 25 February 2014 from

Findings were also presented at the following conference:

McManus, S. (2013) ‘Well-being: What the research and evidence tells us’, presentation to the Public Health England Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 10-11 September 2013. Retrieved 25 February 2014 from

This study has received coverage in the following media:

Chanfreau, J. (14 September 2013) ‘Is the midlife crisis a real thing?’, The New Statesman, [web edition]. Retrieved 25 February 2014 from

Public Health England (2013) How healthy behaviour supports children’s well-being (PHE Publication No. 2013146), Retrieved 25 February 2014 from