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Fifty years of the ESRC H

UMAN HEALTH AND wellbeing have been a concern for the ESRC and its predecessor, the Social Science Research Council, throughout their

50 years of existence. Today, as a glance at the website will show, the ESRC supports a lively range of research on these themes. But the same issues were a lifelong concern for the SSRC’s first chair, Michael Young, later Lord Young of Dartington. As principal author of the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto, and founder of many social enterprises from the Consumers’ Association to the Open University, he knew better than most that there is more to life than money. Five decades on, health and wellbeing have

been supplemented by ‘happiness’ as legitimate areas for ESRC research. And in a development which we can be sure Young would have welcomed, this research is being applied in policy and practice, influencing approaches to education, employment, and physical and mental health. A veteran of this field is Richard Layard, now

Lord Layard and emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, who wrote in 1980 about research on the relationship between income and happiness. The basic finding in this field, he says,

“ A person’s internal life is more

important than their external one in determining their happiness

is that beyond a certain modest level, more money does not make countries much happier. Because people tend to compare their income to those of people around them, very little extra happiness is produced if everyone tries to raise their standard of living.

Layard says: “This field became a genuine science in the 1980s because of US research, and began involving psychologists, neuroscientists and others as well as economists. It is really about recognising the importance of what [the philosopher] Jeremy Bentham believed in, ‘the primacy of feelings’.” He adds that in recent times, people have

come to regard it as normal to be consulted about things that affect them, such as health services. “We no longer think of health services just as a way of curing people, and we know that people’s satisfaction with these services has a lot to do with whether they think they are being listened to and spoken to properly. The idea of asking people


As the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary, in a series of three articles we explore the breadth and reach of ESRC-funded research, and the effect it has had on society. This issue Martin Ince looks at health and wellbeing and the study of what makes us happy

about public services now has deep roots, and this extends to asking them about things that affect their happiness with their lives.” For Layard, a concern for human happiness

is “an argument for an active state that takes responsibility for what concerns people.” An example is mental health. He says: “We know that a person’s internal life is more important than their external one in determining their happiness, and that issues such as addiction, or family conflict, are central to happiness. They are certainly more important to people than many of the things politicians worry more about.” As a result, he has been a principal backer of Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, an initiative which now has UK-wide government backing. He adds that a future priority is to extend such services more effectively to children and young people. Layard also points out that happiness and

wellbeing remain lively areas for research. He says: “The cohort databases run by the ESRC are an invaluable asset. The next step is to use this kind of data to understand the causes of wellbeing through life. We know that a lot of these features are laid down early on, so we need to have a special emphasis on parenting and schooling.” For the same reason, he is keen for child and adult mental services to be better-resourced and to have more trained professional expertise. What works?

A sign that wellbeing is a growing political priority is the establishment of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, one of a series of such centres in fields including local economic growth, better ageing and educational attainment. Its

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