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Well-being projects shine a light on what makes us happier and healthier

With the Office for National Statistics currently conducting a nationwide debate on the nation’s health and happiness, the focus on wellbeing has never been more prominent. But many people might not realise the huge investment of lottery money in this area to date.

In 2007, we launched our Well-being funding programme, which over a five-year period is ploughing £160m into projects the length and breadth of the country aimed at improving people’s mental health, increasing their levels of physical activity and encouraging them to eat more healthily.

Projects range from befriending schemes to exercise classes, gardening, cycling and cooking classes – a host of things for local people of all ages. But the programme doesn’t just do things to people – it helps motivate them to get active themselves, building their confidence about life and others around them.

This explosion of positive activity is great, but what is working best and why? We have commissioned CLES in partnership with the New Economics Foundation to undertake an evaluation of the programme, and so far have surveyed over 2,000 participants.

Their responses suggest that, whether involved as volunteers or as beneficiaries, these projects have helped secure measurable improvements. People enjoyed having more people to speak to, were able to meet new friends and as a result were less socially isolated – particularly older and young people. People’s life satisfaction increased substantially, by half a point (on a 10-point scale). That doesn’t sound like a lot but the 2004 European Social Survey suggests a person’s life satisfaction would only rise by a fifth of a point if their income were to double.

What has been particularly interesting is the way that these projects have triggered activity where it previously didn’t exist. MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition…Do it!), which runs free healthy living programmes within communities to reduce obesity levels among children and their families, is a great example of this.

Previously children might have been referred to health professionals or the school nurse, given a diet sheet and sent away, with little effect. But MEND has had huge success in engaging them in a practical programme of activity alongside their family members, encouraging them to work together to become fitter and healthier while also meeting new people and sharing their experiences.

It is very important that we harness the innovation and creativity of projects like these with hard-headed analysis of what secures a lasting impact on people and communities. It’s not just about one-off community projects. Engaging people and equipping them with the confidence and resilience to overcome challenges is essential if health inequalities are to be addressed.

And that is why I am sharing some of these insights with you today. Lottery funding will soon come to an end for some of these projects, while others have a couple of years left to run. But all have the potential to make a difference well beyond their grant span; they have the ability to inspire and inform other inclusive approaches to improving well-being in communities throughout England, the UK, and even beyond.

The findings we are publishing today come from the second year of a five-year evaluation of the programme. Over the next two years we will also focus on understanding the factors that influence success – what approaches work best and what are the most sustainable. This is, we hope, where our evaluation findings will prove most useful, helping to shape projects and policies that will improve the nation’s well-being in years to come.


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