Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Perceptions of wellbeing

Ivan Tyrrell talks with Paul Allin about the significance of the Government’s National Well-being Programme and the contribution of the human givens

TYRRELL: Knowing that I would be interviewing you today, I read up as much as possible about the Measuring National Well-being Programme at the Office of National Statistics, which you direct. But obviously our readers won’t be so clear about your plans for this programme. So I wonder if you could start by telling us what point you have reached in terms of measuring wellbeing and whether you have got a definition of wellbeing yet.

Paul Allin

ALLIN: Good questions. It is early days for the programme, which will run over several years to produce better measures of national wellbeing – and I’ll come back to the matter of a definition of wellbeing shortly. The interesting phase we are in at the moment is that we are doing two big blocks of work. One is the national debate that was announced on 25 November and that will run through until 15 April. And that’s our opportunity for hearing from as many members of the public and organisations and institutions as we can about what matters to them in terms of the wellbeing of the UK. The second, in parallel with that, is that we are working up some questions to add to our own surveys; the Office of National Statistics conducts a whole host of surveys week in and week out, and we are asking questions about people’s subjective wellbeing – that is, people’s own assessment of their wellbeing – because that was identified fairly early on as an important strand of this bigger concept called national wellbeing.

Just to stay with this idea of national wellbeing for a moment, if you went back 40 or 50 years, you would find that the way in which the wellbeing of the UK, or any country, was determined was by what were then relatively new fangled sets of so-called National Accounts. From the 1950s onward, people have looked at wellbeing as purely an economic measure – how are we doing economically? Economic activity in a year can be summed up as gross domestic product (GDP). The trend in GDP per head has been generally upwards. If you wanted to be really sophisticated, you took inflation out and looked at the growth in GDP per head in real terms or compared your own country, using purchasing power parities, with other countries. And that was the way in which the debate was conducted. But, actually, right from the start people said there must be more to life than GDP.

TYRRELL: Indeed, there is! It has been clearly shown that happiness levels remain pretty stable over time despite rises in GDP – the so-called Easterlin paradox (although it doesn’t seem very paradoxical to me). Anyway, subjective wellbeing is now high on the agenda and seen as critically important – which, of course, it is, because it is people’s perceptions which are most meaningful to them – determining whether they see the glass as half full or half empty, for example. It is all about perception, as in that wise old saying, “The rich man and the hungry poor man do not see the same thing when they look at a loaf of bread”.

ALLIN: Exactly. But is national wellbeing really the summing up of individual wellbeing, as is a widely held view? Or is national wellbeing more of a multi-dimensional concept, involving both subjective and objective measures? As well as subjective wellbeing measures, maybe a broader set of objective measures is needed as well – perhaps not just looking at the economy but whether there are different measures of quality of life in this country or of distribution of income or of the impact that we are having on the environment. We are using the national debate to explore all of this further.

TYRRELL: Yes, the National Statistician Jil Matheson captured the importance of that question rather nicely, I thought, in her speech at the November launch of the programme. She said, “When I am driving my car and I get stuck in traffic with the engine running, the fuel I use adds to our GDP but it certainly does nothing for my wellbeing and it doesn’t help the environment.”

ALLIN: So it’s about trying to create a bigger, broader, more widely based picture. We are not alone in thinking this. There is very much an international, worldwide drift in this direction. You have probably come across the Stiglitz report?1

TYRRELL: I saw it referenced in the document Confident Communities, produced for the New Horizons programme for improving mental health.2 I know it was a report produced in 2009 by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which was set up by President Sarkozy.

ALLIN: And there are other influential bodies in other countries as well. So that’s why we are all doing this, to try to produce a bigger picture. We don’t yet know what the picture will look like and that is why we are conducting a national debate to get a steer on the key things that matter to people, both in terms of what they themselves tell us and what professional groups and interest groups and other departments say.

TYRRELL: Our approach at the Human Givens Institute is very different. Do you know much about the human givens approach, Paul?

ALLIN: We know quite a bit about it from all the material that you and your colleagues have been sending in to us since we started the national debate on measuring wellbeing but I didn’t know much about it before. Perhaps you could say a little about your approach and why you see it as so different.

Is national wellbeing really the summing up of individual wellbeing? Or is it more a multidimensional concept?

TYRRELL: We began our investigation from the starting point of asking the question, “What is a human being?” The answer is that, at the most basic level, a human being is a life form and, like all other life forms, it has to take in nutriment from the environment to maintain and sustain itself. As a higher life form, our nutriment is not just physical but also emotional. We can clearly see, when doing psychotherapeutic work, for example, that, if people don’t get their essential emotional needs met, they don’t thrive. They may get overly worried or depressed or angry or stressed or develop physical illnesses. Just as a plant needs sunlight and the right nutriment to grow, and sickens if it doesn’t get it, so it is with human beings if their innate emotional needs are not met. We experience what we need as positive feelings that we seek to satisfy and, if they are not satisfied, we get negative feelings. For example, we look forward positively to being with people but, if we are isolated, we feel lonely. Once this principle is truly understood it is easy to identify what causes problems.

We have been teaching this approach in the context of trying to improve psychotherapy, counselling and children’s upbringing and education for some years now. We have delineated innate emotional needs in detail. Decades of social and health psychology research have shown us the connection between mental and physical health and the need for a degree of control over one’s own life, for instance. This is innate in us, as is the need to feel secure, to achieve competencies, to have intimate relationships, to connect to the wider community and to be stretched so that our lives have meaning and purpose – much of this information was garnered from the same sorts of information sources that you yourselves are looking at. I can see from the publication Confident Communities, which you have on your website, that a lot of the research cited is very similar to the research that we drew on.2

We have shown that the source of stress and mental illness is always around where people’s innate emotional needs are not being met. So we look to see what is preventing them from getting them met. Is it because they are living in a toxic community? Have they been traumatised? Are they on the autistic spectrum and so cannot access the same genetic templates as those around them etc? Autistic children, for instance, because they find it hard to relate to others and understand social communication, feel all the more alienated, insecure and frightened and that can lead in turn to aggressive, problematic behaviours. So our approach is to keep going back to what nature gave us: the genetic programme requirements for becoming a healthy human being. That is why we call it human givens.

ALLIN: That is really helpful. Thank you. As I say, we have got a lot of useful information from your institute and from members of it who contacted us. So that’s great. At the moment, although there is no standard definition of wellbeing, there is a general understanding that this refers to an individual having a positive physical, social and mental state.

TYRRELL: Yes, I saw a government-agreed definition in the Confident Communities document that mental wellbeing is “a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment”. And that is certainly what we have been talking about. But we also emphasise some needs that don’t get mentioned in government publications. For instance, attention is a fundamental human need – understanding of family values, culture and, indeed, all learning develop through exchanging attention. Yet, increasingly, young children don’t get sufficient adult attention. The frontal lobes in the brain don’t develop properly if children don’t get their attention needs met adequately. So when innate needs like this are not met, people become mentally unwell.

We created an online Emotional Needs Audit.3 I’m sure you would say that it isn’t very scientific but something like 14,000 people have completed it. We simply asked them to rate how well they think their own individual emotional needs are met on a scale of one to seven, and it is giving us some interesting results. If you extrapolate up to the whole population, millions of people are not getting innate needs met. For example, as evidence you cite is showing, the need to feel secure is really important. If you feel unsafe or insecure in whatever respect – be it physically, at work or in relationships, you are fearful and emotionally aroused, and when you are emotionally aroused, you can’t really think clearly. Yet it seems large numbers of people don’t feel secure. On a scale of one to seven, 41.8 per cent of people who completed the audit only ticked one, two or three. So they feel pretty insecure and that means they are going to worry, which could very likely develop into depression and anxiety disorders.

ALLIN: Well, in fact, we are looking with interest at your audit and at all sorts of research and developments that have taken place over recent years. We certainly didn’t invent this topic ourselves in November last year, when the Prime Minister and Jil Matheson launched the debate! I would just like to come back to what you were saying about the Emotional Needs Audit because I think it raises a couple of fascinating points. First, one could ask parallel questions, equivalent questions, of society or of the country or of the economy, I suppose. And that is essentially the way in which the original post-war ideas about the wellbeing of the country were put into practice. People said, “Well, the only things that we can really measure are all the economic transactions that are going on. So we’ll measure that and we’ll do it through internationally agreed standards, in a very thorough way and regularly, and that will be our assessment of the wellbeing of the country. Yes, we know it’s only the economy but that must be pretty important, mustn’t it?” But over the last 15 to 20 years people have been saying no, that isn’t good enough and we do need to revisit that.

I think that most of the work on wellbeing has been done, as you have just described it, by thinking about this from the perspective of the individual – and that has been hugely important. Gallup, for instance, has got a model underpinning its world poll on wellbeing, which asks about the basic needs that people have to have met, and they start with basics like shelter, etc, because they are doing this with people all around the world. The New Economic Foundation has similarly thought through, perhaps more in a UK or Western-advanced setting, what the wellbeing of an individual would build up to. So when we started thinking about the wellbeing of the UK, there was one very clear view that all we needed to do was look at the wellbeing of individuals and in some way try and summarise that or produce some kind of overview.

TYRRELL: But you can look at the wellbeing of an organisation, too – how well it is looking after the needs of its employees, its customers, its shareholders, etc.

ALLIN: That’s what we want to do for the UK as a whole. The National Accounts give results for the UK economy, so it is the equivalent assessment of the wellbeing of society – the quality of life, how well people in the UK are being looked after – that we are looking for. I think what we are trying to tease out is whether, to produce summary measures for that, we need to do something more than look at the wellbeing of individuals – although, as I said a few moments ago, it is certainly necessary to understand about the wellbeing of individuals.

TYRRELL: Yes, it is an important part of the picture but we are also social creatures: we exist in groups. We have an innate need to be connected into the community – that has come up time and again in research findings that you have quoted, and we ourselves have said so for a long time. People who feel themselves well connected to one or other group benefit from that enormously. But if you are a young person living on some problem estate somewhere and the only community you can connect to is the local gang, that is what you are going to do. You are driven to connect to it by this innate need. And this, of course, is what happens to a lot of youngsters. It is not that they are being deliberately perverse – nature is driving them to connect to a group, because that is one aspect of how we survive.

ALLIN: Absolutely. The idea of social capital was very much in vogue a few years ago and here at the Office of National Statistics we used to ask questions in our surveys about social capital – that is, reciprocal social relations that can have all sorts of benefits, including friendships, safety, community and maybe even material ones. However, exactly as you point out, social capital can have a downside as well. Academics like Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone,4 have talked about the value of getting into social groups and using community to increase civic engagement. But, turning that around, if the groups become exclusive groups – even seemingly innocuous bowls groups, for instance – which don’t let anybody join who is of a different skin colour from existing members, then that may not be quite so good for general wellbeing.

TYRRELL: Absolutely. I remember back in the 70s meeting in Germany a chap who had been in the Hitler Youth movement and he looked back on those times with great nostalgia. He was definitely happy then but it wasn’t a particularly healthy group, in the larger context.

ALLIN: So you can see the challenges we face. If we want to assess this social connectedness or the social capital that exists in particular places, that doesn’t necessarily mean that an increase in that kind of social capital will mean an increase in the overall wellbeing of the UK. And that is what we are trying to tease out here. It is why I think it will take a bit of time to get all of this in place.

But we don’t want that level of detail to hold us up from making real progress here, which is one reason that we are pushing ahead so quickly on measures for subjective wellbeing; within the constraints and challenges and opportunities that there are for asking questions in our national surveys, we can really bring fresh data to bear on all this. We can bring some new information, using questions that are quite well recognised to people who have been working in this area – whether to do with life satisfaction or positive or negative affect or flourishing. What will be new is that, by asking these questions over a huge sample of people (we are looking to achieve a sample of about 200,000), this really will enable us to drill down and look at different parts of the country and other distinctions. With that large sample, we can only ask a small number of wellbeing questions – that’s one of the frustrations – but we will obviously, as we do anyway in our surveys, collect quite a lot of contextual information alongside, such as about the kind of jobs people have, their qualifications, where they live and things like that.

So it will be a very rich data set and I think it will build very much on the extremely extensive research that has already been done, and continues to be done, in academia and various institutions and elsewhere.

TYRRELL: That all takes a great deal of time, though! Can I put a slightly different view? We know a huge amount about what people actually need. We know what enables children to flourish at home and at school. We know how to do good psychotherapy. We know how to create local communities in which people work for and with one another in such a way that they feel really good about where they live – you refer to that as empowered communities – and so on. It’s very well known and already in the public domain.


TYRRELL: So it is hard for me to see what further research and surveys can add to what we know. Well, let me ask you that. Do you think more research can add any more to what we already know and to the knowledge that has been gathered, if you think about it, probably for the thousands of years that people have been studying people?

ALLIN: That’s a good question, isn’t it? I think what we are trying to do here is produce something that will enable us to draw attention to the more detailed work that is already around. So one thing we want to do in this national debate is to point to all that is known already because I’m sure that, from where you sit in the Human Givens Institute, it is very clear to you and you have been doing great work in energising people and promoting it. Maybe we can add a bit to that by, in the outcome from the national debate, drawing attention to your institute’s work by saying that we came across it. But, to try to answer your challenging question, I think the fact that we are asking about subjective wellbeing in one of the official surveys of the UK’s national statistics office has quite a dramatic role in that it says that these things are important enough to measure and keep on measuring.

One thing we want to do in this national debate is to point to all that is known already because I’m sure that, from where you sit in the Human Givens Institute, it is very clear to you and you have been doing great work in promoting it.

TYRRELL: And it confers an official stamp, as it were, which could encourage people to establish projects that are really useful.

ALLIN: It especially encourages that, which is what Mr Cameron wants. To him, our producing figures is important but it is not the end. What he was saying on 25 November was how he wants policy to be done differently in government, and to build on the good examples there are around in various government departments – education, health and others – which have looked at wellbeing as one of their policy goals. He wants to spread that idea and make sure that wellbeing is up there in virtually every decision that is made in government. But he is not losing sight of the fact that we need a bit of economic growth.

TYRRELL: Well yes, it has all got to be paid for! May I tell you something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, in terms of the kinds of projects that David Cameron wants to encourage? I think that the most important thing that needs to be done is to educate people about what it is that makes a mentally healthy human being. It should be taught in schools, to employers and politicians and professionals in all sorts of disciplines – because it is the basic knowledge from which we can see how people should treat one another and themselves. We’ve been training professionals since 1996. When we started talking in terms of the human givens and saying that, if people get their emotional needs met in balance, they can’t have mental health problems – we explained what causes depression, anxiety disorders, addiction and so on – GPs, nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, psychotherapists, counsellors and diverse other professionals such as head teachers, business people and lawyers would say, “It’s so obvious! Why weren’t we taught this before? I wish I had known this years ago.” This is because understanding innate needs gives them a pattern, a framework, a constructive way of thinking about how they can achieve what they want to achieve in their work with people – pat-ients who recover fully and quickly from mental or physical ill health, children who are curious and interested and want to learn, employees who work more effectively because they care about the company and feel cared for, and so on.

I think this is what has to happen before anything else, really. The knowledge that already exists has got to be shared and spread. Then, if people start to do the things that David Cameron is trying to encourage communities to do, they will do so because they feel they own the idea – they made the connection in their own minds.

I can give you a brief example of that. We helped initiate a group of human givens therapists to establish “Just what we need” parent pods. The idea was that therapists would work with parents who were really struggling – they were mainly single mums, some underage, and not necessarily highly intelligent. But these mothers were not shown how to bring up their children, which is what is normally done; they were taught about their own innate needs, what they themselves needed in order to be able to live a satisfying life. Of course, the therapists couldn’t change material circumstances but they could teach new attitudes – and sometimes that in itself did lead to a significant change in circumstances. The mums and dads made the connections in their own brains. They might say, “Oh, so if I need attention/security/a sense of status, so must my little Johnnie”. The therapists would spend a session on each essential emotional need and teach about it in fun ways and show how that particular need contributed to making an emotionally healthy human being. That in itself was enough to start parents’ relationship with children improving, children’s performance in school improving, and so on. And these courses don’t have the high drop-out rates that most parenting groups have.

But, if government just imposes ideas or solutions on people – “You’re going to do this; we’re going to do that; we are going to spend money here; we are going to spend money there” – I fear a lot of these projects are going to struggle.

We want to give a good reference to the human givens and to all other relevant work when we come to write up our review.

ALLIN: That is a very powerful argument. It strikes a chord in some thinking we have been doing about one of the approaches to measuring wellbeing that the Stiglitz commission is very keen on – and that is to think about the stock of things – or the capital, to use the economics jargon – and to think about human capital in particular. If I have understood the human givens approach correctly, it is saying, “This is what you come into the world with, in terms of what’s in your account on day one—”

TYRRELL: —Yes, it’s like a genetic plan for how to build a good life.

ALLIN: And so the way that this grows over time sounds quite similar to the way in which people who promote the idea of human capital say that, with education and training and experience and those sorts of things, one’s human capital can increase as well.

Actually, talking about stocks and capital to government policy makers often strikes a real chord. They can ‘get it’! We can add to these things or, if we don’t develop them or we don’t recognise them or we don’t give them much attention, they can get out of date or wither away. So Stiglitz says quite a lot about trying to identify the different aspects of the different capitals that are around, and that is one approach that we are exploring. And I can see a very obvious connection between the human givens and what happens subsequently as you go through the life course.

But, as regards the point you are making, I want to reassure you that this national debate is the opportunity to identify the knowledge, as you call it, that is already out there. We recognise that lots of people have been doing valuable work over many years. We are just parachuting in, saying, “Right, the Prime Minister has asked us to look at measuring national wellbeing” and we are not about cherry picking – we are about trying to identify all the relevant work that is going on. That is why we are so pleased that your institute and the members of it, and other people who know about the approach, have all referred us to it. We want to give a good reference to the human givens and to all the other relevant work when we come to write up our review and reflect on where we go from here – what we can actually do to produce measures that truly reflect these needs.

TYRRELL: Once you have gathered all this data, Paul, what exactly does happen next? And could there be a role for the Human Givens Institute in it? After all, this is something we have studied for many years now. We have thought about these issues at some considerable length and depth. I think we could be of great help and service to you. How does one get involved?

ALLIN: Okay, what happens next is that, after April, when we try and gather things together, we want to play our thoughts and findings back out to a number of people – not to do another full public consultation (that would just keep things running on forever) but to recognise that there are certain people that we need to come back and talk to and see if we can make some real progress towards producing some wider measures. What I’m saying is that we would love to come back and talk to you once we’ve emerged from the national debate. In the meantime, please do all you can to make sure we know exactly what we need to know about the human givens approach and that we have got (as I hope we now have) all the material we need to look at, alongside other works – such as on flourishing, from Felicity Huppert, a psychology professor prominent in the positive psychology movement, and life satisfaction, from distinguished economist Richard Layard, and many others as well.

TYRRELL: That’s brilliant. We will definitely keep in touch and send you relevant information when we have it. But there is something else I’d like to mention. Feeling some degree of volition and control in life is an important innate need. It is a means by which we get feedback from the world – we do something and it produces a result. It is what enables us to exist, really. Yet one of the papers I’ve read from your office quotes findings from the 2007 British Household Panel Survey that 64 per cent of people agreed or strongly agreed that they can’t influence government policy and only 20 per cent of the population thought that they could have any impact at all on national government policy. It was the same in the 2005 and 2003 surveys. That is a bit worrying, isn’t it? After all, as volition is an innate need, it means that government is perceived as blocking an essential innate need from being met.

ALLIN: Without commenting on the actual figures, as I don’t have them at my fingertips, I think the point you are making is in line with what Mr Cameron has been saying about the need for a better way to do policy.

TYRRELL: Then that is positive. He is getting a lot of flak but his heart seems to be in the right place on this, doesn’t it?

ALLIN: As a non-ministerial government department, we have to be careful not to be party political but there is definitely cross-party interest in a different way of doing policy and I think that people like Lord Layard and others have been making this point quite carefully and persistently over a variety of different administrations. Maybe it is now that we can see a way in which we can begin to bring this into government policy making, a way in which we can have some national data that can help frame and produce a backdrop to it. It is not going to give all the answers but maybe it is about encouraging departments and policy makers in local government and elsewhere to take this broader view of wellbeing and consider how to deliver it.

TYRRELL: That would be highly desirable. I would suggest that one question that every department should ask is, “Is this policy we are considering (whatever it is) going to get people’s emotional needs met better?” Or is it going to prevent people from getting their needs met? As much as possible, that should be considered in all kinds of policy making.

It will be interesting to see how much challenging and questioning of departments and ministers comes from the public and institutes and academia, to test out how much they are taking account of wider innate needs.

ALLIN: That’s right. I think that, as we go forward, it will be interesting to see how much challenging and questioning of departments and ministers comes from the public and from institutes and from academia, to test out how much they are taking account of these wider innate needs. I think the role of a national statistics office is essentially to provide the data that everybody needs to have in order to hold a more informed discussion of these things. We are not just here to provide data and we are not just here to provide data for people to question policy but, hopefully, if we can all agree on the data, the discussion is more meaningful.

TYRRELL: And do you think the politicians will really listen to what you come up with, from the results of your survey?

ALLIN: Well, I can’t speak for them all but there is certainly a lot of interest in this topic. Jil Matheson, as National Statistician, was invited to talk to an all-party parliamentary group and I’m sure there are other examples of politicians from all groups and parties picking up on this. Internationally, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has taken this up in a big way and is talking to political leaders and officials around the world in terms of producing new measures of societies’ progress. And I think that strikes a chord with what you were saying about taking a common approach around the world because international comparability is something that the international organisations are very keen on. We will have a more informed debate if we all agree on the broad measures of wellbeing and then we can have a slightly more sensible discussion about what economic growth is doing to quality of life and the environment and its impact on the wellbeing of all.

TYRRELL: It is quite hopeful, isn’t it, if this could be achieved? It is something so desperately, desperately needed in the world.

ALLIN: It is an exciting and challenging development. I have great expectations that we can get to some sensible answers very quickly and we will try and make good progress and make sure we have correctly interpreted all the information that has been provided to us and, I’ll say again, that includes the information that we have got from the Human Givens Institute. We will certainly get back to you to continue this discussion.

TYRRELL: It has been most informative talking with you, Paul. I really do feel that, when you have got good statistics and data and real knowledge, it gets beneath ideology. And that is really what the world needs – less ideology and more knowledge.

ALLIN: You won’t get a national statistician disagreeing with that!


To discover more information on well-being statistics for the UK, visit:


Paul Allin is a chartered statistician and currently director of the Measuring National Well-being Programme at the Office of National Statistics. He was previously director of the Social and Economic Micro- Analysis Division and has worked at the Office for National Statistics since 2002. Prior to this, he was the chief statistician and head of statistics and social policy at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Ivan Tyrrell is editorial director of Human Givens and co-director of the Human Givens College


This article first appeared in "Human Givens Journal" Volume 18 - No. 1: 2011

Human Givens JournalSpread the word – each issue of the Journal is jam-packed with thought-provoking articles, interviews, case histories, news, research findings, book reviews and more. The journal takes no advertising at all, in order to maintain its editorial independence. 

To survive, however, it needs new readers and subscribers – if you find the articles, case histories and interviews on this website helpful, and would like to support the human givens approach – please take out a subscription or buy a back issue today.



  1. Stiglitz, J et al (2009). Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. www.stiglitz-senfitoussi.fre//index.htm
  2. Department of Health: Mental Health Division (2010). Confident Communities. Brighter Futures. A framework for developing well-being. Department of Health, London.
  3. See
  4. Putnam, R (2000). Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Latest News:

SCoPEd - latest update

The six SCoPEd partners have published their latest update on the important work currently underway with regards to the SCoPEd framework implementation, governance and impact assessment.

Date posted: 14/02/2024