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 local events such as the Canterbury earthquakes and the Christchurch mosque attacks of March 2019 can, and often do, have a negative impact on wellbeing [4,5]. Similarly, the impact of such events may be apparent in community-level data, as are presented here. However, over time, those experiencing mild psychological reactions should be able re-establish good levels of wellbeing if they receive basic support [6-8]. The recovery process can take 5 to 10 years or longer [9].

Key trends within subjective wellbeing

Currently, more than eight out of ten respondents (86.4%) to the Canterbury Wellbeing Survey rate their overall quality of life as good or extremely good. The current result is statistically significantly higher than all other time-points in the series and the overall upward trend (starting from 73.5% in 2012) is statistically significant. Similarly, average levels of emotional wellbeing (as measured by the WHO-5 scale) have continued to improve steadily over the last five years, to a mean score of 15.3 points in 2019 (compared to 13.8 points in 2013). This overall upward trend is also statistically significant. There has been a statistically significant downward trend in self-reported stress over the last seven years. The 2019 result (67.9% of respondents reporting experiencing stress sometimes, most of the time or always) is essentially equal to the 2018 result (67.6%), the lowest since the time-series began. Finally, in the 2018 New Zealand General Social Survey, nearly 90 percent (87.5%) 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 was an overall gradual decline in the proportion of respondents in greater Christchurch reporting experiencing stress sometimes, most of the time or always, from the 2012 baseline through to until 2018 (this proportion was unchanged between 2018 and 2019). 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 2019, most of these differences are not statistically significant.

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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