Subjective Wellbeing

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Subjective wellbeing refers to people’s emotional health, ability to live full and creative lives, and capacity to deal with life’s challenges [1]. It is a positive concept, meaning that subjective wellbeing can also be defined as flourishing, where people are engaged with life, and have a sense of meaning and purpose [2]. Having high levels of subjective wellbeing can positively affect most dimensions of people’s lives: family and friendships, employment, education, physical health, and life expectancy [3]. Subjective wellbeing is influenced by a wide range of circumstances, events, and policies.

Subjective wellbeing includes strengths-based concepts such as resourcefulness and resilience. Major disasters such as the Canterbury earthquakes or other potentially traumatic life events can, and often do, have a negative impact on people’s wellbeing [4,5]. However, over time, those experiencing mild psychological reactions should be able to cope and re-establish good levels of wellbeing if they receive basic support [6-8]. The recovery process can be drawn out, taking 5 to 10 years or longer [9].

Key trends within subjective wellbeing

Currently, eight out of ten respondents (81%) to the Canterbury Wellbeing Survey rate their overall quality of life as good or extremely good. There is an overall upward trend in this proportion (starting from 73.5% in 2012), which is statistically significant. More recently, self-rated quality of life for greater Christchurch appears to have plateaued, with no significant changes evident over the four survey time-points since April 2016. In contrast, average levels of emotional wellbeing (as measured by the WHO-5 scale) have continued to improve steadily over the last five years, to an all-time high mean score of 15.4 points in 2018. There has also been a statistically significant downward trend in self-reported stress over the last five years, and the current result (67% of respondents reporting experiencing stress sometimes, most of the time or always) is the lowest since the time-series began. Finally, in the 2016 New Zealand General Social Survey, nearly 90 percent (87.9%) of Canterbury respondents rated their sense of purpose highly (7 or more out of 10 on the ‘life worthwhile scale’), which is unchanged from the previous result and is similar to New Zealand overall.

Key equity issues within subjective wellbeing

The improvements seen in subjective wellbeing are not uniform across the population. The proportion of those rating their quality of life as good or extremely good has generally been higher for European respondents, compared with Māori and Pacific/Asian/Indian respondents. At least in part, this is likely to be driven by household income levels, as the results show income to be strongly positively related to overall quality of life.

The levels of emotional wellbeing reported by greater Christchurch respondents, overall, have been steadily increasing over the last five years. However, levels of emotional wellbeing indicated by Māori respondents have generally been lower than those for European and Pacific/Asian/Indian respondents, especially in the early years of the post-earthquake period, but not significantly different in more recent results. There is also a pattern of higher emotional wellbeing scores for male respondents compared with female respondents.

Finally, there has also been a gradual but steady decline in the proportion of respondents in greater Christchurch reporting experiencing stress sometimes, most of the time or always, since the 2012 baseline. While European respondents appear to have reported a slightly lower frequency of stress, overall, compared with Māori and Pacific/Asian/Indian respondents, between 2012 and 2018, these differences are not statistically significant  (with the exception of European compared with Māori, at two early time-points, 09/2012 and 09/2013).

The degree to which these differences might have pre-dated the Canterbury earthquakes needs to be considered. That is, differences that might be attributed to the severity of earthquake-related impacts (both initial and ongoing) might also be attributable to pre-existing socioeconomic and environmental drivers.

What this means for wellbeing

The overall picture for subjective wellbeing in greater Christchurch is a positive one, with noteworthy improvements in the quality of life, emotional wellbeing, and stress indicators in recent years. These data indicate that there have been statistically significant overall improvements in greater Christchurch residents’ subjective wellbeing over the time period following the Canterbury earthquakes and the size of these effects appears to be meaningful. For the majority of the subjective wellbeing indicators, no pre-earthquake data are available.


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